The rush of inventing a word that would make the OED just the once were it somehow noticed before vanishing like one of those synthetic elements invented for the sheer physicist’s fuck of it before vanishing a millisecond later with no impact on the universe whatsoever.

Thus invertebratefully, perfectly logical for one second in one sentence and then poof, gone.

Sometimes I think writing is like a jazz solo in an empty room, perfect for just that moment and then never heard again.


The cabbie had never heard it in the pluperfect subjunctive.

Actually languages aren’t made from random mouth sounds, only a small portion of the wide range of possible sounds is used for language. The International Phonetic Alphabet can notate all the phonemes (individual sounds) of all human languages and does so with only I think 107 letters and around 50 diacritics (and a handful of other marks). English uses around 44 phonemes (a phoneme being an individual sound). There’s a language in the Pacific somewhere that uses only 11 phonemes. How I do not know. And there’s a click language in southern Africa that has I think 112. You could do amazing things with 112 phonemes.

There was a language in Turkey that had only two vowels and eighty some consonants. It is extinct now, killed off in the greatest consonant clusterfuck of all time. That’s a linguistics joke.

I know a funnier one about a lady in Boston who asked a cabbie if he knew a place where a woman could could get scrod.


Turns out that the word helicopter is made from the the classic Greek stems helico, meaning spiral, and pter, meaning winged, as in pterodactyl or pterosaur or pterpaulanmerisaur. Which means that helicopter should be pronounced helicoter, long o, silent p, which will make you even more irritating to your friends. Try it next time one is noisily circling the neighborhood while you are all trying to watch your favorite show. Fucking helicopters they shout. That’s pronounced heliCOter you shout back. They stare at you. The P is silent, you shout. Or scream, really, so they can understand the important phonological distinction in all that noise. But no one has ever screamed that a P is silent before, not ever. It’s not something one would ordinarily scream, not like screaming fire or watch out or Stella. So now everyone is staring at you, the helicopter is gone, and you wished you’d never read this post.

Maybe someday we will speak as well as we can see

Yesterday I made the mistake of listening to the TED radio hour, and learned that because the Vietnamese language has no subjunctive, Vietnamese people can’t speculate about choices they didn’t make or the possible outcomes of decisions. The credulous host and the hooting audience offered no hint of having considered the idiotic implications of this claim.

In things like color, if you are from a culture that does not have, say, pink, you can stare at pink all day and not see it as pink but as just a shade of red. We just have blue, the Russians have three blues. Not shades of blue but different colors, just as we have a purple, a blue and a red. There are all sorts of things that you we will not be aware of even if looking right at them because the concept does not exist in our brain. This even extends to numbers. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has been revived somewhat, backed up by neurology, just not the absurd claims about it that were made before. But it is true that there are things we do not see because we do not know they are there. Making sweeping TED Talk pronouncements about the subjective are absurd, of course, but if you’ve ever seen the endless list of tenses, aspects, moods (and evidentiality and mirativity) found in human languages it begins to dawn on you that depending on which language you are raised in, you are going to experience things in slightly different ways, or at least describe them in different ways, so that when someone else is hearing your experience you will describe it in a way that fits into the grammar of the language you speak. That is where reality is changed by language, in the retelling and second hand experience of it. People around the world will see pretty much the same thing, but when they go to describe it to those who did not experience it first hand, it gets squeezed into the very limited capabilities of an individual language to describe it, and that is where you will not see a ship even though you are not looking at it, not first hand but second hand. That is not by direct observation but by indirect observation. Reality winds up being shaped by the language it is being described in, if there are literally hundreds of tenses, aspects and moods to express reality, each of us is only allowed a few each, because no language can contain all of them. So we wind to trying to describe something we saw in impossibly limited terms. Language can only adequately describe an infinitesimal amount of what our brain’s occipital lobe is capable of seeing (and even less able to describe the other senses), which means that inevitably we can describe something in a way that leaves out almost everything we saw (heard, smelled, felt), and depending on what that language is capable of conveying, that is what we will hear or read second hand. So even if a polyglot bunch all saw the same thing at the same time, we would be unable to convey equally what we had seen in our respective language, but only what our lexicon and grammar enable us to say. A second hand account in one language would differ slightly or more than slightly from one in another language. An account written in English would differ dramatically from one recited in Tok Pidgin. And yet it is those second hand accounts that become reality in a culture, whether in history or in tales told round the fire. Language doesn’t have much impact on direct experience (as little of what we experience goes anywhere near the language parts of our brain anyway), but it has a vast impact on the retelling of that experience. When a guy says that the Viet Namese people, with no subjunctive, can’t speculate about choices they didn’t make it seems ridiculous. But not having a subjunctive will affect how a story gets told in Viet Namese, because the facts will have to be written or told in such a way to make up for the fact that they have no subjunctive. It can be a subtle difference, though sometimes it can be a huge difference. Every language is affected this way. Language is this vast, extraordinary thing that, alas, each of us is allowed to use only a tiny bit of. Such a shame. Perhaps as we evolve as a species we’ll be able to use more and more of the wealth of languages, and instead of the handful of tenses and moods and aspects each grammar has, we’ll be able to use all of them, interchangeably, and be understood. Maybe someday we will speak as well as we can see.

You say potato, and I say peruna.

So I tried boiling the potatoes until soft and then dunking them in a bowl of ice water for ten seconds and then peeling off the skins. It worked. Life just got a little bit easier. The skillet already had the diced onion, bell pepper, sweet pepper and collard greens. Dropped in the spuds and let them, brown and make an unholy mess out of the bottom of the pan and hot damn, Irish-German heaven. Spuds, baby, Kartoffels, pomme de terre, papas in a brand new bag. Well, brand new recipe. Well, old recipe, new technique. Thank god for the Incas. Without them we might still be eating gruel. Though I don’t know who the lazy bum was who brainstormed on this boiling and dunking thing. A Finn maybe, leaping from the sauna into a ice cold lake. Peruna the Finns call a potato. Comes from Swedish, something to do with pears. Probably Swedes messing with Finnish minds. Here, Aarni, have a pear. Though the Germans used to call then earth pears. At some point they became kartoffels, from the Italian. The French called them earth apples. The Swiss still call them earth apples. A little too close to road apples. I wonder about Europeans sometimes.

The Finns eventually Finnicized the Swedish word for pear into peruna and left it at that. Or would have had Finnish been English where a noun nearly always remains the same no matter what you’re doing with it. Whether you’re eating or mashing or throwing or thinking about or discussing a potato from last year, it’s potato. Same word. Stick an es on the end if it’s more than one. The e is the irregular bit. As with tomatoes. That’s all you have to memorize about more than one potato. That penultimate e.

But the crazy Finnish language has fifteen cases that can alter peruna into fourteen other words depending on specific things you are doing with the potato. Well, thirteen different words because one of the different words is used by two different cases. Each case changes peruna into something else, and same for plurals. So by itself a potato is a peruna. More than one is perunat. A baked peruna, but mashed perunat. But as they were my potatoes they were perunoiden. When I dropped them into the pot they were perunoihin. Once in the pot they were perunoissa. As they boiled they were perunoita. When they were finally softened they were perunoiksi. As I took them out of the pot they were perunoista. When I removed the skins they were perunoitta. In the skillet with onions and peppers they were perunoineen. When I took them off the fire they were perunoilta. As I put them on the plate they were perunoille. As they sat there on the plate they were perunoilla. And when I gave them to my wife they were perunat again. For those of you taking notes, those were the plural declensions for the nominative, genitive, illative, inessive, partitive, translative, elative, abessive, comitative, ablative, allative, adessive, and accusative cases.

You’ve probably heard of the nominative and accusative cases. Maybe the genitive if you learned German. The other ten cases defy non-technical explanation. Ten ways of describing potatoes in specific potato circumstances that you’ve never imagined were so profoundly different that entirely different words are required to say potato. Each of which follows rather intricate rules. Alter the potato’s situation slightly and a new case applies with its own specific rules for altering the ending or adding syllables that turn peruna into perunoissa or perunoita or perunoiksi.

Luckily we ate them in English.