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Plumage from Pegasus
by Paul Di Filippo

Babel in Reverse is Lebab


MY NAME is Cam Jameson. At one time I was an A-list film director in Hollywood. Now I am a refugee expatriate living in the Peruvian portion of the Amazon rainforest with the Isconahua tribe, which numbers some ninety survivors. They are the only speakers of their native language, not one word of which do I understand. This is just as I prefer. I can make my basic needs known through simple signs and gestures, and the tribespeople are happy to share their primitive resources with me, tolerating me as an object of pity. After all, we share the same fate: immune to the Markovian language, we are fossils awaiting extinction, self-corralled onto a shrinking reservation.

Writing this memoir on tree bark with berry ink, I want to get down the simple basic facts of how I helped bring an end to civilization as we knew it. My recollections might help future historians, I hope. After all, I enabled Lexington Verbinsky to create Markovian—I funded him, or the studio did—and my movie helped to disseminate the language around the planet. I apologize in advance for all my sins.

The year was 2016, and the Hollywood boom in science fiction and comic book movies was surging ahead at full steam. Avengers 2 had hit big in May of the previous year, and in December the world went crazy for Star Wars Episode VII. This year was going to see the release of several DC superhero films, as well as a host of other genre seat-fillers. Every film company large and small was scrambling for a franchise property with legs.

I myself was busy with the pre-production work for Midnight at the Well of Souls. The original book was strictly B-list or C-list material, by some forgotten hack whose name escapes me now, some ten years on. (Of course, there is no online access among the Isconahua, for me to use to supplement my memory, and I'm not even sure the web still exists in this year of 2027.) But there were ten volumes in the Well of Souls series, and it featured plenty of exotic venues and weird aliens and macguffins and action-packed set pieces. Just what the script-doctor ordered.

As was de rigueur in all well-funded sci-fi films of that era, we set out to create a fictional language to hook the fans. Klingon, Elvish, Dothraki, Na'vi—the practice was well established. For most of the various aliens, we'd just come up with a few words and sentences. But for the master race, the Markovians, we wanted some linguistic complexity, grammar, syntax, all that stuff.

The studio did its research, and the next thing I knew Lexington Verbinsky was sitting uneasily in my office. If I had ordered an old-school nerd or geek from central casting, and they had supplied Lex Verbinsky, I would have been well pleased. No fashion sense, Asperger's affect, ill-kempt greasy hair, monitor tan and skinny as Victoria Beckham on a lettuce diet, Buddy Holly eyeglasses—the whole schmear. Lex boasted several advanced degrees from places like Stanford, MIT, and CalTech, and had apparently spent his whole adult life in academia, never having held down a real job.

"So, Lex, you've got a rep for inventing imaginary languages. Tell me a little bit about some of them."

Lex grunted, coughed, then said in android fashion, "We prefer to call them 'conlangs,' for 'constructed languages.' All twelve of mine have been of the a priori variety, meaning they bear no connection with existing tongues. I have won numerous translation competitions, and oversaw a complete rebuild of the Conlang Atlas of Language Structures database. In addition, I personally dragged Interlingua kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century."

Here he gave a kind of snorty guffaw, then fell silent.

"Um, great, fine, a remarkable track record, I'm sure. Do you know the source material we're working with here?"

"I read all the Well of Souls books in eighth grade and recall them in quantifiable granularity. They were among my favorites. But I took the occasion to re-read them all over the last three days, just to make sure I had not forgotten anything. I believe I can construct a superior Markovian language."

"Well, um—let's get to it then!"

It took Lex approximately six weeks to create Markovian from scratch. I can only assume he worked around the clock, for I received texts from him at every possible hour. Something about the project seemed to have engaged his passions and every ounce of his talent.

When Markovian was more or less complete—though Lex kept tinkering with it fussily and continuously during filming—we put our cast through the same immersive and intensive language-learning process employed by the State Department for its diplomats. I had certain artistic standards, even with sci-fi films, and wanted everyone speaking the language authentically during shooting. No dubbing. Surprisingly quickly, Markovian was being employed by the cast in a natural and easy manner. It seemed to be a language that lent itself to easy acquisition, one that was pleasant and enticing to speak, conducive to conversation and communication. Lex had fashioned it with a smart and loving hand.

But, curiously enough, I found myself unable to make any headway at all in acquiring it. I seemed to have a flaw in my brain that rendered me insusceptible to this conlang. After a few frustrating days in class, facing many, many other demands on my time and energies, I just gave up.

And since Lex was on the sets during every scene to advise, I figured I could rely on him to catch any errors in pronunciation or meaning. Of course, most of the dialogue was in English anyway. I had to keep reminding the actors of this, as they easily fell into employing Markovian instinctively, almost as if it had become their native tongue. In fact, they began to use it among themselves, after shooting was over. I had seen this same kind of clubby, fraternal behavior arise during other films. It resembled a military unit. Everyone involved, from stars to grips, developed buzzwords and in-jokes that promoted solidarity, so I didn't think twice about the phenomenon.

Also attendant on the set most days was my wife, Patricia Plenilune. Patty had been an actress herself until she got sick of small parts and bad reviews. But she still had the smell of the greasepaint in her nostrils, and liked to watch.

As the only supernumeraries of a sort, she and Lex began to hang out together. Patty could make friends with anyone. It amused me to see the sexy goddess and the nerd side by side. I even smiled when they began conversing in Markovian.

The production of Midnight at the Well of Souls seemed charmed. I had never experienced a project that had fewer glitches or disasters. The communication levels were off the scale. We cruised to a wrap in record time. The studio heads were thrilled with both the rushes and my efficiency, and I saw a nice bonus in my pay package.

At the end of the last day of shooting, Patty and Lex came up to me holding hands. They both began to speak in Markovian, then realized I couldn't understand a word. Lex switched to English.

"Cam, I wish to convey to you the news that Patty and I are romantically entangled now. Markovian has allowed us to see deep into each other's nature, and we are now soul mates. I regret that this happened, and we never intended it. But it was simply a consequence of the language. I hope you can accept this outcome gracefully."

After I had retrieved my lower jaw from the floor and gotten confirmation of this alienation of affections from Patty, I could do little but wish them well with all the hurt shell-shocked sarcasm I could muster.

The movie kept me busy, and my mind occupied. Midnight at the Well of Souls debuted in December 2017, and that marked the beginning of TEOTWAWKI.

Within twenty-four hours of its premiere there were thousands of people who had mastered Markovian. The studio had put the entire language—dictionary, grammar and all—online as open source.

Repeat viewing of the film broke all records. After six months, the number of Markovian adepts was estimated at several million.

I hardly need to recount the rest of the well-known global history. Lex Verbinsky had crafted far better than he ever could have intended or known. Markovian proved to be a language that promoted deeper and more forthright and clear communication than any natural one. It simply outcompeted all natural languages on a Darwinian level. People began to abandon their native tongues by the millions. Within a decade, the heterogenous linguistic ecosphere had become a mono–culture.

The result was mind-blowing amounts of societal disruption on every level imaginable throughout those years, as Markovian allowed things to be said and understood in ways never before possible. Interpersonal relationships broke apart and came together in new and unpredictable configurations. Families were ripped apart and reformed, often without any obvious consanguinity. Governments fell and rose and fell. There were many small wars, but no big ones, and even these conflicts seemed to peter out faster than in the past. Trade patterns thrashed like a fibrillating heart. A thousand new styles and forms and genres of art were created. National boundaries were redrawn over and over. Technology of all sorts took a quantum leap. Children began to be born and raised as native Markovian speakers, and they exhibited strange new behaviors.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

But for those of us who could not wrap our minds or tongues around Markovian—a genetic minority estimated at a tiny fraction of one percent of the human population—it was really the most frustrating, inexplicable, bewildering and disconcerting of times.

We were exiles from the human race, effectively deaf and mute. History had passed us fossils by. We could neither participate in nor understand what was happening, except when someone deigned to explain things using one of the old tongues. But then people began to forget the old languages, and resent using them. Would you want to talk babytalk?

I found myself in Rio when everything finally fell apart for me and my makeshift hardscrabble ventures to stay afloat. I rode a rusty freighter up the Amazon as far as I could go, and then trekked feverishly even further, until I stumbled on the village of the Isconahua, whose inbred unfittedness for Markovian matched mine.

Now I just while away my days until my eventual death in a kind of blissful, rudimentary silence, little wondering what's happening in the outside world.

But I nourish a perverse pride in the fact that despite not launching a franchise, no movie before Midnight at the Well of Souls ever did better box office.

I can't speak to anything that came after.

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