Original Poetry: Children of the Sun

The five elderly speakers of Yuchi
      in Oklahoma call themselves
Tsoyaha— “Children of the Sun,”
      but their time sets
and with it, their words lapse
      alongside Amazonian Oro Win,
Arctic Ter Sami, and pre-Neolithic Jeru.

Whose nuance knew the push-pull
      of a lemon quarter squeezed
over kalamata olives and albacore?
      Each final voice
becomes a stiff Cassandra, slowing
      in cadence, scaly in timbre.
Who will think to carve diction
      into stone? to ossify
the tongue for slower erosion?

The Thao of Taiwan, ancestors of Polynesia,
      settled the shores of Sun Moon Lake
long before sending their children
      into the rising sun.
Tongues, like so many fishes
      from a bleached reef;
I know where they were
      and scavenge among the bones.

[This poem was written after I read the non-fiction book, 1000 Languages by Peter K. Austin.]
[Check out other original poems here.]

Short Story Review: “The Long Dizzy Down” by Ziporah Hildebrandt

3 of 5 stars.

Artificial intelligence is much speculated about and the potential eventual conflict between humankind and Artificial “Life”. Assuming AI can self-replicate and spread like organic beings, or computer worms and viruses, humankind loses its status and master of tech. In this tale, AI ships go rogue and replicate. But more worrying than that, they kidnap young humans to “man” their ships and use mind controlling tech to virtually enslave the living.

Two human brothers are taken at the ages of 3 and 5 and then spend hundreds of years working for The Ship. The younger of the 2 is the narrative filter for the tale which places human social constructs and working language outside of his knowledge base–a knowledge base also regularly cleansed by Ship’s AI. The narrator is a man-child in emotional and verbal development filtering the tale through a pidgen-like language [or perhaps a creole since it seems to be his default language] to express his vantage of the events of the past few hours. Human authorities have taken him into custody to determine what he knows and understands.

For a vignette based on a speculative situation and not a full story, this works to an extent. It doesn’t contain within it a longer story with a plot.

This tale was a quarterly contest winner appearing in Writers of the Future: Volume 33 edited by David Farland.
[Check out my other reviews here.]

Short Story Review: “Hello, Hello” by Seanan McGuire

4 of 5 stars.

One of the more head-scratching hypocrisies of humans is judging the intelligence of non-human animals based on their grasp of human language as if humans have figured out a single non-human language. The pets, horses, chimps, gorillas and dolphins that’ve grasped a few words or signs seen to be leading the pack. More often than not, humans don’t understand other humans speaking a language other than their own. And thus the sci-fi invention of the universal translator . . .

This slightly futuristic tale focuses on two grown sisters that rely on a Skype-like interface with a beta-model of a universal translator to communicate. Interestingly, one of the sisters is completely deaf-mute, the other is American Sign Language [ASL] – Spoken English bilingual. Using avatars, the translator interprets signs as vocal words and vice versa, accommodating for the drastic differences in language structure and grammar.

The same smart system also actively tries to translate and “learn” new languages in the same way. When working through syntax and expression etc. the translator defaults to interpreting the communication as Hello set on repeat. The narrator’s young kids are also proficient in ASL and in use of the communication interface used to call their deaf Aunt Tasha. One day the narrator finds a stranger using her deaf sister’s interface and talking to her young impressionable daughter. Disturbingly, the strange woman merely says, Hello, Hello, Hello and doesn’t answer questions about Tasha’s whereabouts. . .

The discovery process of this tale and the familiarity of failed communication drives this story eerily, if not enjoyably.

This tale appears in The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy: 2016 edited by Rich Horton, which I received directly from Prime Books. I’ve previously read this author’s “Each to Each” and “There is No Place for Sorrow in the Kingdom of the Cold”.




[Check out my other reviews here.]

Kumbaya: An Origin Story

Kumbaya, as a phrase, just popped up in a short story I was reading. Coincidentally, I was planning on explaining the history of the phrase ever since I wrote a post about the Gullah origins to the non-standard pronunciation of ask as aks. [That post is here.]

Many people likely know that Kumbaya refers to the 1920s song of the same name. However, its common social use now is to indicate a coming together of people as if to sing hopeful songs, such as “Kumbaya.” This is what is meant when one says, They tried to make it a Kumbaya moment. So, “Kumbaya” as group bonding potentially with a nuance of naivete. Indeed, the Urban Dictionary defines it as “blandly pious and naively optimistic.” Fair enough.

But what does the song mean? Notice that I keep calling it a phrase rather than a word. “Kumbaya,” the song title, is a variation on the Gullah phrase, Kum ba ya. Glad I could clear that up. Gullah diverged from English centuries ago by way of Africa and Jamaica, so the pronunciations have strayed a bit. Also, the language does not have a written component, so natural drift happens. Still, 2 of the words are quite recognizable:

Kum = Come
Ba = By

The third word has diverged from its origins significantly. Firstly, Gullah tends not to pronounce the letter “r,” much like the way people in Boston say cah for “car.” Secondly, the English “h”-sound has drifted over to a “y”-sound. This is not so very different from Donald Trump exclaiming that something is going to be “Yooj” rather than huge. Put both of these together and suddenly it’s not so weird to see that

Ya = Here

So, kum ba ya = come by here. And the opening lines of the song make sense:

Kumbaya, my Lord. Kumbaya . . .
Come by here, my Lord. Come by here . . .

As a wise cartoon once said, Knowing is half the battle.

An Aks to Grind: Ax-ing Questions About Non-Standard English

Every-so-often, a new meme will invade Facebook where the user reposts a snide one-liner about use of the word ax or aks, in lieu of ask, or insulting the use of seen without the auxiliary have as in I seen it, rather than I have seen it. It’s always easy to make fun of how others speak. But sometimes it’s nice to understand and appreciate it, too, without the condescension.

English has never for one moment stopped evolving. How it is developing and adapting in Wales is different than it is in Canada, Australia and Belize. However, it still works. People are using it to communicate. So, rather than dictate how it must be used, one could note how it is used.

Black English is often given credit for non-standard ax, especially by those who disdain its use. Black English does use the word, but research lands the credit elsewhere. Old English used 2 verbs interchangeably without issue: acsian and ascian. Later, these were shortened and became 3 variants: aks, ask, and ash. The last of which, dropped from the language.

Modern dialectal aks is as old as Old English acsian and was an accepted literary variant until c. 1600. (Online Etymology Dictionary)

Chaucer used axe in the Canterbury Tales, because the variant was still alive and good into the spread of English globalism. Pidgens, invented languages that blended elements from different parent languages for the purposes of trade, popped up all over the world thanks to the British Empire. Many African pidgens included the word: aks. All before 1600, when in England and then America, the trend landed squarely in the camp of ask, over aks. By then, many pidgens had evolved into creoles which are fully functioning mother tongues. This was especially true in the New World where enslaved peoples of many languages had the pidgens to unite them. These new creoles became the Jamaican Creole, Gullah [the Sea Island Creole], and many others. [The word for ask in Gullah? —aks. That is the correct word in their language. Gullah has a huge historic influence on Black English, and the pieces start to fall into place . . . ]

The whole argument reminds me of my college roommate from Salamanca, Spain that would sneer at how Mexican Spanish pronounced Mexico as /MEH-hee-ko/, rather than /MEK-see-ko/ as English does and as they do in Spain. He called it illiterate. But he was wrong to do so. When Spain foisted their language and culture upon the New World, they pronounced the x as /h/ as is still done in Mexico today. Later, Spain changed the way they pronounced the x to align with English, /ks/.

In both cases, what was deemed correct was changed by some, and not by some others a world away that still used a correct older form. Later, the ones that changed the rules, ignore their own usage history to condemn usage of the older form.

Writers and Word Aversion: It’s Moistly in Your Head

Moist has a problem–it’s become the expression non grata. Hate groups have formed on Facebook. How I Met Your Mother even ran an episode about it. The problem is called word aversion. And you probably don’t have it. Most don’t, but it’s a social phenomenon and spreading.

Word aversion is not to be confused with verbal and written pet peeves. Most writers do have those. Verbal pet peeves are annoyances or moral outrage at the misuse, mispronunciation or misspelling of words. If you dislike the overuse of “like,” or feel a migraine emerging with a confuddled use of there, their, and they’re that’s just a pet peeve.

Word aversion is akin to a phobia in that it evokes a visceral response such as nausea or disgust. Linguists and writers are less prone due to the increased awareness of the word as a symbol, the arbitrariness of the association. We do tend to have favorite words, but not vomit-inducing words. [Interestingly, women are more prone to experiencing it.]

What are common words that cause this reaction?: moist, panties, fudge, ooze, pus, crud, crevice, slacks, ointment, navel, phlegm, and mucus. These words all have general meanings or slang associations with bodily functions, often sexual. But others are less clear the association: squab, cornucopia, brainchild, and meal. Yes, meal.

Slate had a great article on this topic a couple years back. In it they describe a study in which a hamburger was served on a plate that had the word “rat” printed on it. Some people avoided eating the parts of the burger that touched the letters of the word. Not liking rats is understandable, or at least not wanting to eat food that a rat has touched. But, avoiding the letters that arbitrarily represent the sounds of the word that itself arbitrarily represents the rat . . .

But for writers, maybe this isn’t all bad news. Who doesn’t want to create a visceral reaction in their reader in poetry or fiction? Knowing that certain words could create an aura of discomfort or disgust would be handy, to either use or avoid.

I do have a word that has disgusted me since middle school. I remember babysitting and cringing to my charges asking to play with–stickers. So, I’m guilty of being a head-case. And I love words. I studied linguistics. Stickers. Have you ever experienced a word aversion?