A Conversation about Language with col-Eric

At last, I received some good news from the University of Berkhamsted. After rejecting my last twelve research proposals in a row, they finally turned the tables and sent me a list of research projects for which they already had funding, but could not find anyone to do the actual research. This is what they had on offer:

  • Algorithmic Semantics of Clarkson Comedy: use the Python programming language to write a program that will randomly generate absurd similes in the style of auto journalist and general purpose gobshite Jeremy Clarkson.
  • Deconstructing Weapons of Mass Destruction: a review of poetry inspired by the prospect of nuclear, chemical and biological armageddon.
  • The Politics of Mustaches: statistical analysis of the declining popularity of facial hair in British Primeministers and cabinet members with psychological analysis of the perceived trustworthiness associated with mustaches, beards and mutton chops.
  • Popularizing the Least Popular Languages: exploring practical methods to motivate increased take-up of dying languages.

Whilst none were a perfect match for my preferred specialization (the role of neo-constructivist spoons within the context of Le Corbusier’s conception of an ideal home), the parlous state of the household finances meant I gladly opted for the research project which I thought had the greatest potential for commercialization: namely, getting people to learn near-dead languages. The way I saw it, a successful project could be worth millions to Berlitz. But who should I experiment on? The choice was obvious – my most curmudgeonly clone, col-Eric. If I could overcome his stubborn nature, my techniques would work with anyone. Sitting down to a supper of egg and chips that I had lovingly prepared for us both, I then proceeded to ambush col-Eric…

col-Eric: Pass the salt.

Eric: What’s that you say?

col-Eric: I said, pass the salt.

Eric: Sorry, can’t do. You’ll have to ask in Kusunda.

col-Eric: Ku-what-da?

Eric: Kusunda. It’s a Nepalese language that’s about to die out. I’m trying to keep it alive by only responding to imperative commands when they are given in Kusunda.

col-Eric: That’s ridiculous. I just want the salt.

Eric: Before I give you the salt, I’m going to give you an incentive to learn Kusunda.

col-Eric: You’re going to give me an incentive to learn how to say ‘pass the salt’? No thanks. I can already say it in English. Here, let me demonstrate: please pass the salt. Do it now, before you make me walk around, fetch the salt for myself, and accidentally punch you in the back of the head on the way back.

Eric: No, no. You need to say all that in Kusunda.

col-Eric: I would have thought a punch in the back of the head wouldn’t need translation. It’s the universal language of gratuitous violence. Anyway, why do you keep talking in English, if you want me to speak Kusunda?

Eric: So you can understand me, of course.

col-Eric: Well, isn’t that the whole flippin’ point? We already understand each other. So why do we need to waste time learning a new way to understand each other?

Eric: Because, according to linguistics professor Madhav Prasad Pokharel, if Kusunda dies out, then ‘a unique and important part of our human heritage will be lost forever’.

col-Eric: A unique and important part of my supper is getting cold. Now pass the salt!!

Eric: Don’t you get it? Kusunda is phonologically, morphologically, syntactically and lexically unrelated to any other language.

col-Eric: You know why that is? Because nobody likes talking any language that is anything like Kusunda. And that’s fine with me. And let me explain why: I don’t need to learn a unique new way to say: ‘I don’t give a shit’. There’s got to be hundreds of languages nobody will miss when they’re gone.

Eric: 7000. There’s 7000 languages in total, and more than a thousand that are in danger of extinction.

col-Eric: 7000! There’s 7000 ways to say: ‘I don’t give a shit’. How ironic. That’s 6999 more than I need.

Eric: Don’t you have any beauty in your soul?

col-Eric: No, but I’ve got a rumble in my tummy. Now pass the salt!!

Eric: I refuse.

col-Eric: Very well – you’ve forced me to take extreme measures.

col-Eric starts eating.

Eric: Don’t you want the salt after all?

col-Eric: Nah, I’ve got too much salt in my diet anyway. Anyway, this tastes good without.

Eric: But Kusunda is dying!

col-Eric: I’m dying! …of starvation.

Eric: Ugh. Don’t talk with your mouth full.

col-Eric: Even if I talked in Kusunda?

Eric: Why, do you know any?

col-Eric: I know enough to get by.

Eric: Go on, show me. Just give me a little taster.

col-Eric: Alright. (Shouts) DO YOU SPEAK-AH DEE ENG-ER-LISH?

Eric: You’re just speaking English loudly.

col-Eric: That’s why English is so popular, and Kusunda isn’t. If you want to be understood, you just need to speak English bloody loudly and very slowly.

Eric: So you refuse to speak Kusunda?

col-Eric: Do you refuse to talk sense?

Eric: I’m not supposed to talk sense. I’m an academic.

col-Eric: And that’s why nobody wants to talk to you. In any language.

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