Talking Old   Leave a comment

Sometimes when I grow weary of one particular voice, my own, the one chattering in my head, I “talk old.”  For me that means to use words from Proto-Indo-European, the reconstructed mother tongue of a hundred languages, ranging from Irish in the West to Hindi in the East.  It means to play, to sing, to delight in the most lasting, the most insubstantial, intangible human artifacts we have.

Words like *deiwos “god (divine),” *ogni “fire (ignite),” *udor “water” are mantras for me, songs I sing to myself when no else is listening.  (The * means the word is reconstructed.  For me, the * means “Pay attention!  Talking old is going on!”) Words no one speaks now, unless it’s some historical linguist, a professional muttering over a journal article she’s writing, or an amateur and word-mystic like me who gets lost in the shape and sound of “talking old.”  Here are words our ancestors used, to talk to each other and to name their world.  *kolnos, mountain … and I’m off, among moss and trees floating into view and disappearing again in the mist.  *wlkwos, almost unpronounceable: the wolf, vilkas, ulf, vrka, lupa, lobo, those shapes of gray fur with fierce teeth that flash into view around a fire at night, only to vanish again, and then those unearthly howls echo from the hills and up and down our spines.  We say unearthly — yet the only place we hear them is on earth.  Home that is not home forever.

Individual words come fairly easily.  There are whole dictionaries of Indo-European you can pore over, lists of cognates from a range of languages, the vowels and consonants shifting, the resemblances still striking, like at a family reunion where maybe a generation will skip, and then a nose or line of eyebrow or chin will reappear on a toddler asleep in the lap of her grandmother, and the kinship shows clear again.  Blood will tell.

Sentences are harder, but still possible.  The best we can do now often feels like speaking with a strong accent.  We can get close enough we’d probably be understood here and there, across the six thousand years that separate the present from early Proto-Indo-European times, simple things the best, reaching the furthest across the miles and millennia.  *Twom ognibyo wikyo, “I hallow you with fire,” and instantly I’m present at the rite, the flames dancing in our eyes, the smoke drifting and clearing.  *Nomen bhero, “I carry a name,” I bear it, like a beloved cup that has passed down several generations, the edges softened, a few chips around the rim, the color or design worn in places.

Or maybe it’s been renewed, lovingly reworked so that its energy and substance will last a few more generations, the way we can still trace the meanings of so many names, handed on like heirlooms through a family.  “That was your great-grandfather’s name, that was your aunt’s, you and your cousin both have the same middle name from your grandmother’s family.”  *mater, *bhrater, *swesor, *pater, *sunu, *dhugater: mother, brother, sister, father, son, daughter — across thousands of years the family persists, its names still holding their old shapes and sounds, recognizable across a score of languages, the human links we share.  *oinos, *dwou, *treyes, *kwetwores — one, two, three, four, and I count minutes, the pleasures of being alive, the four directions, the four seasons.

I “talk old” to the point that I’ve created several simplified forms of Indo-European as a constructed language or conlang, and used it to write simple prayers and poems.  I “talk old” whenever English gets diluted by advertisers and politicians and careless speakers who squander its beauty and significance in talk that’s literally cheap, of little value.  Poetry saves language because it always is trying to mean more, sometimes straining a language to its limits.  Though paradoxically (signpost of how many truths!) the best poetry comes effortlessly, as if the universe speaks English, or Urdu, or Swahili, and everyone everywhere could understand the words, if they wanted to, if they just happened to be listening.  Then “talking old” is simply speech, the human voice shaping experience, in love with possibility, the universe surprising us still, once again, always.

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