Friday, February 8, 2008

Mobile Savages and Their River Plate Tectonics (a Dictionary of Verbs in English and a Glossary as Guide to Our Hang)

(The Manifesto)

"Connecticut" means "Long Tidal River" in Mohegan (not Mohican nor Mohawk, they are different tribes) and it is one phenomenally understated coincidence that it's also two connected antonyms in English: “connect” and “cut“. Listen to children, they know things. The river is where two ancient land masses collided forming part of Pangaea. When the long tidal river known as the Gulf Stream took Europe back home, it left with it a chunk of England we've been calling "New England" long before we knew England left us before we left it. It also deposited Noah Webster, the Father of American English, on the Eastern side of this Connecticut River. New York State knew what was up. Right after the Revolution it mobilized troops against other fledgling States to move its border up to this same Eastern side of the River thereby keeping Old England at its proper geographical New England border; the Feds stepped in and bungled the whole thing up though and Connecticut was allowed to remain connected and cut. Jorge Luis Borges grew up in a neighborhood called Palermo in Argentina, not Sicily. His grandmother was English and his mother came from across the Rio de la Plata in Uruguay. Rio de la Plata, like most famous rivers, is in fact not a river at all, but a tidal estuary. Rio de la Plata also has an older name most people think is a younger name. It was not named because it sits at the center of the South American Plate; the name is older than that info. Sir Francis Drake was the first to call it "The River Plate" after the pirate word for silver and gold booty, "plate." Though it's true the word "plate" came from the Spanish "plata" for silver, "Rio de la Plata" is in fact a translation of "River Plate" into Spanish --not a translation back into Spanish, a translation into Spanish; the Spanish word formed the root of an English name that was then translated into Spanish (and unsurprisingly, “booty” is also an anglicized slang, from the French “butin“ for “plunder“). This river deposits 57 million cubic meters of silt into the Atlantic each year which are then ushered by the Falkland Island Current deep into the Atlantic to Africa, back across to the Caribbean, and up and around via the Gulf Stream. When Africa slammed into Europe it left Italy behind, created the Alps to protect the marooned Africans from invading hyperborean hordes, and deposited me along the River Po sifting for clues. One could make a strong argument that I should have deposited myself in Crete or along the Indus if I really wanted to get down to the bottom of it, but since the nature of these mobile savages is that they move I thought getting close might yield better results than getting exact. In other words, I’d rather encounter them out on the vibrant and windy streets than in their shaded and dusty homes.

Welcome to the Vox Super Voltus’ ever growing collection of geophilological faulterings. In our process of learning languages, new biproduct or runoff languages fall out of the fissures in between. Over-sensitivity might have us thinking up names for these new languages, but as we all truly know (in this era at least) they already have a name: English. And as English is in constant mutation wherein new languages are constantly falling out of its own fissures, we need names for those languages too. Their names: English, for now.

Fight it all you want, but one way or another "this" language needs a name and seeing as all names are limiting I currently vote for the name with the widest breathe: English. As Christopher Damien Leo I will never have a chance to be Michael Steven Henderson or Mary Elizabeth Schumaker. I am limited to being simply Christopher Damien Leo. When a band is eager to tell you what genre of music they play I will be eager to tell you without listening, "they suck." So it is in fact this increasing lack of connection I feel the language I speak having with the language one speaks in the country of England that strengthens my support for calling my language "English" as well. I long for the day when saying "my language is called English" sounds as absurd and magical as if I were to say "my language is called Swahili." The word English belongs to the English like the icon of the New York City skyline belongs to me and the rest of my fellow Newyorkers -- It doesn't. They are both public domain. As Simon Winchester courageously unveiled (or to some, sacrilegiously snitched) in his novel, The Professor and the Madman, some of the most prolific contributors to the bible we call the Oxford English Dictionary were murderers, auto-castrators, and lunatics, both incarcerated and on the run. From top to the bottom, English remains savage and free. And if it can be called a murderer, then it can also be called a suicider and a phoenix.

Furthermore, when the English one speaks in America becomes something entirely different from the English one speaks in England which will become something entirely different from the English spoken elsewhere as a lingua franca and the blood of the Germanic Angles from hence we draw the word is diluted down to but a negligible part of the potion, these languages will rename themselves, organically. When the Greeks formed a new city in a perfect port on the southwestern coast of Italy they named it "Neapolis" -- New City. As the city moved further and further away from new it moved closer and closer to "Napoli" and eventually like the city on the southwestern coast of Florida, we have cities like "Naples" which I believe will one day be called "Apples" seeing as they grow oranges in Florida and, like I said, things have a way of naming themselves their opposite to stay free. Think about how the Andalusians named the erotic dance done by brown people "flamenco" after the people they deemed to be at their polar opposite, the Flemish. Or how the Jamaicans named their cocktail with fiery ginger root the "Moscow Mule." Or, getting back to the states and plates, "Nevada" means "land of snow" in Spanish and "Arizona" means "good oaks" in Basque though there are no oaks, snow, or Basques in those parts (there may have been Basques, but if that's the case this weirdness truly knows no bounds). When the Conquistadors finally made it back home they called shellfish "mariscos" after the Maricopa Indians of those same North American deserts because the Maricopas lived nowhere near the sea (maybe). "Orso" (bear in Latin) becoming "horse" is even more than a maybe (though the "everything-as-animal" metaphor generally begins by liberating and ends by eating it's own tail. To paraphrase a Reis Van Von Der Donk parable, when young Dancing Rock asked Chief Cunning Fox if he could name his wolf cub after him, Mother Angry Clouds rolled in but refused to rain). So whether English speaking Newyorkers will ever go the way of Spanglish speaking Nuyoricans is unpredictable. For all history has taught us, it could just as likely become us as the sole speakers of English left in this world, even if the only English thing remaining about the language we speak is its name, English.

So I hope it's clear what separates the Vox Super Voltus from any other urban dictionary then. First, "urban" doesn't fit us. Maternity wards for words don't exist on boulevards and avenues alone; roads, trails, cul de sacs, and interstates birth words of equal grandeur as well (notably, I learned "wigneck" at a gas station about 20 miles inland from Tampa. To get to "wigneck" one must first contract "white" + "nigger" to "wigger", and then further contract "wigger" + "redneck" -- and yes, these breeds exist in Florida sticks). In fact, "Savage" things initially came from the Late Latin woods, the silvaticus, not the streets at all; the streets may have been vulgar, but not necessarily savage. Secondly, urban dictionaries are petitions of new words either vying for validity or already so common conservatives are levying for their extraction. The Vox Super Voltus coasts above that war. If a word is said, it is. There are a few rare moments in this collection where you will hear us arguing against the existence of certain words, please read between the lines, this is just us having fun with polemics. All words are. So the purpose of the VSV is not just to document some existent words we like, but also to present words in a manner that strengthens our polyamorous philology of letting them all in.

Let them in, it's time -- both epochally and since I'm assuming you, reader, have passed most of your self identity milestones and are now deep into the deconstruction process. Linguists place two major age markers on learning new languages, before 5 and after 12. Before 5 is the golden period, the neurons are ripe and still ripped wide open. They say after 12 means you may never lose that accent (even Einstein couldn’t rout his), the neurons are settling into their ways. However, when I look at these age markers and think about my own experience learning languages (including the ever ongoing one with my mother tongue English) something else leaps out; 5 and 12 are two of the most important periods in creating one's self image. At 5 most children begin normal schooling and are hence blasted with the question "who am I" in relation to my peers. In creating our own identities we naturally build off the most salient things: sex, size, and what comes out of our mouths. If we kept skipping between languages it could threaten our new desperately congealing form. We are the sound we give off -- which brings us up to 12: puberty. By now you MUST know who you are and sound is even more important; tweens break into cliques according to which genre of music they listen to. Skipping between languages at this stage is downright ridiculable amongst those brutal peers. If the multi-lingual ball wasn't up and rolling before 12, you enter your freshman 101 language course refusing to morph with the new words and syntaxes; whether it's active or passive, this is one perilous time to be porous and amorphic. This is the real reason 4 years of high school language courses generally go in one ear and out the other; the teen is firming his identity up, not loosening it.

But all is not lost, my friends! If you have half a soul, all this shape building flying in the face of things not adding up (for me it was the “Save the Dolphins” but kill the tuna campaign hitting me on the same day I found out Regis Philbin and Seal were tennis buddies when it...) eventually turns in on itself and you look for any way to humpty-dumpty yourself off of that wall and laugh at all the king’s horses’ and all the king’s men’s scrambling to reconstruct your identity. Now, assuming you are at least out of high school reader, the dismantling of your identity becomes the ride; the nonsense has finally permeated permanent holes and your job best be to work with it or suffer your own antiquation. This is all to say there is a third great time to skip amongst the languages.

That time is NOW. Dismantle yourself. Dismantle your language. Immolate and party.

Don’t worry about whether this is a moment for “which” or “that” unless you like worrying about whether this is a moment for “which” or “that” (like I do). Spend some time pondering the legality of using words like “data” and “stamina” to represent the singular only if you accept that the use of the proper “datum” and “staminum“ for singular are justifiable conversation killers to 98% of the population (and be wary that the other 2%, of which I am part of, will want to bone your brains out). Shrink away from using the more forceful and acute yet unaccepted “for all intensive purposes” while opting instead for the redundant but accepted “for all intents and purposes” only if you’re not in the mood to rock any boats. But as to whether any of the aforementioned word choices could obscure or mar the point you’re trying to communicate: doubtful. In fact, sing the praise of redundancy if you need to! The word alone is fantastic; the “unda” comes from the Latin for “wave”. Re-wave that shit if you need to! Who said the goal is to always be precise? Who said the goal is to always be economic with your words? Maybe you wanna stretch it out but you don’t wanna say anything new. Maybe you are highly attuned to rhythm and beauty and your sentence needed a few extra sounds and syllables but no new ideas. Take these two examples: “Last night I got destroyed” vs. “Last night I got com-ple-te-ly destroyed”. To be destroyed is already something complete; completely destroyed is redundant, but man I’m telling you, last night I was com-ple-te-ly destroyed, got it? People are fickle with their personal longstanding issues and often need to be brow beaten and massaged with redundancy. Sometimes you need to slow the boulder down. Yeah, heed the grim lessons of my dense and slim editions, dear readers! Don’t be me! I write my books streamlined and small so you can take them with you and engage with the world while you’re engaging with words. When someone doesn’t get what I’m getting at I tell them ,“read it again”. Don’t do that! Be redundant and egoistic and keep us reading your words for longer than we should need to if it’s success you seek.

Wait, let’s slow down. Let me take my own advice, which in this case means qualifying and dampening my last bit of advice. One of the most incredible and counter-intuitive characteristics of the English language is that it is one of the least wordy, least redundant languages. Speakers of English of course always have the option of speaking redundantly, but the language itself comes sleek. Entertain me with a bit of folk science, take any book initially written in English and place it next to a translation of that same book, a translation into any language, and the version in English is nearly always shorter than the other version. It takes other languages more words to say the same thing English can in less. How can this be? How can a lawless and savage language like English be more economically efficient than refined, guided, and carefully monitored languages of the Old World? The answer is simple: the more rules one creates the more ways around the rules one creates. English, having fewer strict rules than its siblings, need not waste words a) making sure its way from x to y is legal and b) when it finds out the path it needs to take from x to y is in fact illegal, wasting more words taking the ‘round about route. Let’s take an extreme example: when the Lenape chief says, “before white man we had no words for ’trash’ or ’mine’ in any branch of Algonquin” you should say “sucks for you because it must have taken you pages to get the same point across we drive home in a single word”.

Ok, now I may be abusing my own advice, but I need to further qualify it and in doing so we need to revisit the “wave” in redundancy again. As English continues to expand there will come a time when we need to reel it in. Though clarity may not always be the goal, clarity must always be the option. There can be no joy or merit in playing with ambiguity if ambiguity is the rule. Language is first and foremost about communication. As English continues to bloat and blanket and one speaker of English will no longer understand another speaker of English, an umbrella “standard” English will have to be formed in order for the different subsets beneath to be continue understanding each other while maintaining their own dialects. In fact, the official bodies that monitor and guide other languages have come about for this very reason: if there were no “French language” there would be no chance in hell mother tongue francophonic speakers from the Congo, Marseille, and Paris could understand each other. To put it in more concrete terms for mother tongue English speakers, there are just barely enough rules currently in place in English for someone from Kansas and Scotland, for all intensive purposes, to understand each other, but that relationship is slipping fast. So though the fastidious talk of English purists arguing and whining for constraints (and what’s weirder, taking it personally) may sound like the preacher with his flock in the bunker preparing for Armageddon, we all know the preacher is ultimately right: Armageddon will come, just not tomorrow. When it does come, for all we know about those “waves”, it may very well be an ancient language like French bubbling up and bursting out of its self-imposed and once needed constraints.

Finally, as out of vogue fashions were once valid, all noise exists in the same state of flux. Letters this century sound different than they did the previous century. As time bends it bends sounds as well and Beethoven’s symphonies sounded different to him than they do to us now. Naturally this affects meanings of words from one decade to the next in subtle but crucial ways. Words need the flexibility to change in perpetuitum so their sounds can appropriately reflect the articles they currently highlight. As a suffix, the "Eng" of "English" therefore comes close enough to the "ing" of a gerund to reflect this motion: Amereng and SpaƱeng in particular sound like nouns in movement to me, Enging sounds like a super fast echo, and Slangeng sounds redundant. This is to say that verbs are not the only things conjugated, all words are conjugated by time. Or better, this is to say that all words are verbs ("oozing" may be a slow verb, but "chair" is an even slower verb). So let it not be forgotten that our tradiction itself is flux and therefore this collection, and all other collections that may call themselves "dictionaries", should be taken only as diaries.

You say, “Fantastic, Chris, we get your point, but why devote an entire book to words that are dubious at best?” The answer is because I am a patriot of the savage and free language, whatever that language may be, and in order for words themselves to remain free the forms they’re presented in must also remain soft and malleable. Language has afforded us so many forms by which to express ourselves: novels, poems, prose, articles, op-eds, essays, lyrics, facts, fictions, satires, et al -- but they are all still forms. I have no desire to eliminate the form, but I do think we need to keep them in check. We need to not only constantly revisit the simple question of “why this form”, but we also need to occasionally arbitrarily break it and taunt it to keep nimble. This brings us to the dictionary: what form is more defined than a definition? We have arrived at our target.

Now, with even more enthusiasm than I had when I began this introduction, I assert that this is an English collection until it tells me otherwise. And it will.

Chris Leo


manic hispanic said...

reading this blog makes me feel like i've been let in on a secret. the only thing is that it is a secret that someone told a long time ago and, while that does not devalue the secret, it leaves me with that treacherous "missed the boat" feeling deep in my gut.
i keep promising myself that one day i will discover something at it's inception.

Christopher said...

Ha ha...well I've heard that Seattle is a long way away, but if you should happen to be in the hood, I just sent this out to my email list:

I was hot on the heels of reaching my 366th entry in the riverplatetectonics dictionary so I could have a word a day list ready for kick-off by April Fools Day 2009 when I received my only piece of fan-mail to the site thanking me for my "cute sniglets" and I hit a wall.

Then last week Jay "Saenai" Escobar + Fro Marg(z) started speaking what in a perfect world would be coherent tongues (see "cereblow" and "space-grinding" creations in above title) and I decided it was my calling to yet again pick up this Cross of the Uberlingua.

So come celebrate the uncruncking of Chris Leo and many other rejoicables this Thursday at the former and legendary BLUEBERRY COLLINS party at SWEET PARADISE on Orchard right up from Canal at like 10 featuring EXSCOPATA djs Tori America and Cesare Vespucci.

I'll remind you,

Frances said...

While those tennis buddies are having the time of their lives, you could at least follow the technicalities of their conversation by studying a few tennis glossary.