Neil James Hudson has published about thirty stories in various zines, including On The Premises—he last appeared with “Aplut” in March 2013, and his story “John Comes Back” took first prize in March 2009. He works as manager of a charity shop in York in the UK. His collection The End of the World: A User’s Guide can be ordered from his website at www.neiljameshudson.net.
A Language of Regret
by Neil James Hudson
Arianna had no idea why she always accepted tea when Professor Hindle knew full well that she drank coffee. But once again she sipped at the hot liquid, wishing that she could hypnotize her taste buds into believing it was something else.
“I suppose I should get to the point,” said the older woman. “I was reminded recently of something you said at our first tutorial. I seem to remember we were discussing how the English subjunctive was falling into disuse.”
“How could they?” exclaimed Arianna, almost throwing her tea cup down onto the saucer so she could use both hands to gesticulate. “The subjunctive is amazing! It’s like having a whole new language hidden inside the first one. All the same words, but change the endings, and bam! Everything means something slightly different. Not a change of meaning, but a change of mood. Everything is about possibilities, things that could have been, wishes and regrets, instead of simply describing things. All just hiding behind the original words, for those that know how to read them. And English, which has produced some of the finest poetry and literature in human civilization, just let it—” Abruptly, she noticed that the Professor was smiling gently at her. She picked up her cup again. “I think that’s what I said at the tutorial,” she said more quietly.
“It is. And it made me wonder if you might be interested in something I’ve been working on.”
“Honestly, I’m a little busy—”
“I was interested in secret languages—languages so different from anything anyone else spoke, that it would be nearly impossible to learn them. Then I decided to drop the ‘nearly’. I wondered if there were actually languages that we simply couldn’t learn.” She took a piece of paper from the table beside her and handed it over. Arianna looked at it, puzzled. There were six words on it, in Roman alphabet, but otherwise she couldn’t work out which language they were in, if any.
“Say the first word on the list,” said the Professor.
Arianna tried to pronounce it. It seemed to have four syllables.
“Now say it again,” urged the Professor.
Again Arianna looked at the list, and read the first word from it.
She couldn’t quite remember what she’d just said, and looked at the list again.
“I became convinced that there were words that our brains were simply hard-wired not to learn. I’ve spent a lot of time on this—generating syllables randomly, then trying to remember what I’d come up with. To be honest, you’re here as an experiment. I wanted to know if you’d have the same blocks as I have. It seems you do.”
“That’s rubbish,” said Arianna. She looked at the list again and memorized the nonsense words on it. Then she turned the paper face down, and tried to recite what she’d seen. She couldn’t.
“Just six words. But they can’t be learned. There you go, Arianna. There’s your hidden language.”
Arianna tried to hand the paper back, suspecting she was the victim of a psychological trick, but the Professor refused it. “This is yours, now. I’m at the end of my career. You’re at the beginning of it. Don’t become some dried-up academic, Arianna—make a name for yourself. Learn this language.”
The Professor shrugged. “For the mystery of it. Don’t you relish a challenge? And besides: our brains have evolved so that they can’t learn these words. They must evolve further. If we can manage to store them in memory, we’ll have moved on in evolution. Who knows what else we can do?”
Arianna studied her tutor for a few seconds, wondering if one or both of them were mad. Then she said, “okay.” She looked down at the unlearnable words again. “I’ll keep these, and I’ll do what I can with them. But you’ve made a mistake, Professor. You’ve got evolution wrong. If our brains evolved not to be able to learn certain words, there must be a survival value in that. People who can remember them must be more likely to die.”
She stared at the paper again, and the tea went cold.
In fact Arianna did nothing more about it. There wasn’t really anything she could do. She made a few more attempts to learn the words, trying memory systems and tricks such as breaking them into parts that she could remember, but the complete words wouldn’t stay in her memory and that was that. She agreed with the Professor that the reason was probably physiological rather than psychological, and couldn’t see any way of overcoming this. So although it was a curiosity, she gave it very little thought until Professor Hindle’s death.
Her body was recovered from the university lake, an attractive area but one that occasionally claimed the lives of depressed students. Her death was the subject of considerable gossip and speculation, and although it was officially ruled an accident, no one could imagine why she had been there except to end her own life.
As far as her own research was concerned (as by now she was a postgraduate student, on an inevitable track to an academic career) she was transferred to another supervisor, a younger man whom she found less likeable and expert than Professor Hindle. She found that she missed the older woman, believing that all professors should be eccentric in some way, and have a nagging lifelong minor obsession that would prove entirely fruitless. She certainly did not expect that the Professor had left her any of her effects.
It was her new supervisor, Dr. Peter Williams, who handed the files over, along with a solicitor’s letter formally allowing her ownership. She guessed that Dr. Williams was annoyed at not being allowed to keep them himself. “I’ve had a glance through, but I can’t make a lot of sense of it,” he said. There were five box files, which she piled up jealously and took back to her room, only dropping them once.
She didn’t have time to look through them until the weekend. The files didn’t seem to be in any particular order, but she numbered them anyway and opened the first one, hoping to catalogue the contents.
She couldn’t make any sense of it herself on a first look. She couldn’t always understand the Professor’s writing, and had no idea what the notes were actually about.
She had started on the second box before she began to suspect what was going on. As she tried to compare the new pages with the old ones, she realized that she had no idea what she had just read in the first box. She returned to it, looked at the first page. Inflections of nouns, by the looks. She read the rules until she understood it well enough. Then she closed the lid.
No recall of it whatsoever.
She had a quick look through the other boxes. She was able to estimate how much material was here. Enough, she thought, to codify an entire language, although the vocabulary would be woefully incomplete.
Professor Hindle had not come up with this by playing random syllables and noting down the ones she couldn’t remember. She had found a language that humans couldn’t learn, and learnt it.
“These are only six words,” said Daniel.
“You’ve already got a coffee stain on the paper,” said Arianna. “I think I was sensible to leave the rest of it at home.”
She had wondered if in fact it was wise to meet in public at all, but she wasn’t in a spy film, and besides, she didn’t know Daniel well enough to know if he’d misinterpret an invitation to her room. He looked harmless enough, with a small goatee that made him look intelligent without being too geeky. But she also suspected he’d rather have been conversing online.
“But you say the whole language has been analyzed and transcribed.”
“I wouldn’t say all of it. Some of the grammar seems to be missing, and the vocabulary leaves a lot to be desired.”
It had taken Daniel only a single glance at the page to understand that the words couldn’t be memorized. She still occasionally made efforts to learn them, hoping to snap out of the spell, but he seemed to have accepted the evidence in front of him immediately, and already seemed preoccupied with the problem of how to program it.
“So,” he said, “you can understand and remember what the language structures are, just not the words and phonemes that are attached to them.”
“That’s exactly it. There’s a simple past tense, for example, that’s formed by adding a prefix to the verb stem. But I can’t tell you what the prefix is.”
Daniel had only recently graduated, but he specialized in computer modeling of languages, and was reckoned to be far in advance of his supposed tutors. And also, she wanted to keep a measure of control over the language and its release into the wider world. She didn’t quite trust her own tutors: but then, she didn’t quite trust Daniel either.
“Assuming the syntax isn’t completely bizarre, it should be a simple task to model the language in computer code. That opens the door to translation. It’s done all the time with existing languages. Of course the translations aren’t perfect, but they’re near enough and we’ll only need a rough and ready version.” He drank from his coffee, but seemed to be sizing her up. She wasn’t sure what for. “What’s missing then?”
“Well. There doesn’t seem to be a future tense.”
He stopped drinking.
She carried on.
“The nearest I’ve got is that you can say, –I was going to do-, or –I would have done-. The Professor doesn’t seem to have worked out how to say –I will do-.”
“But those are far more complicated constructions than a simple future tense. Who did she learn this from?”
She shrugged in reply. She had looked through the Professor’s notes, searching for some kind of clue, but had no idea.
“Okay, here’s an easier one. Why are you so bothered? The language doesn’t want to be learned, so why learn it?”
“All languages want to be learned. That’s what they’re for. The difficulty of a language only lies in how far it is from your own thought processes. When you learn a language, you learn the people who speak it. You can think other people’s thoughts. You bridge the gap that’s always…” She trailed off, not wanting to give the impression that her affair with languages made up for some deficiency in her relationships.
“One last question, then. What kind of people use a language without a future tense?”
This time she couldn’t even shrug.
“I’ll do it,” he said. “I’m curious to see what happens. The computer should be able to learn it, even if people can’t. But when you can speak this language, I think you should give more thought over who you’re speaking to.”
With extreme reluctance, she invited him to her room to look at the Professor’s notes.
Daniel took them away. She didn’t want him to, but as he pointed out he could hardly work from memory. She made him write her a receipt for them, but felt stupid at doing so, unsure what kind of redress she could seek if he didn’t return them.
As she lay in bed that night, she heard the voices again. There was more of an insistence, and she convinced herself that although she heard many voices, it was a single person. The voices must have been generated inside her own head, as her brain tried to make sense of the meaningless messages it was receiving. But she still couldn’t understand what was being said.
In the morning she remembered her thoughts, but could not remember any of the words. At first she felt silly at having thought the voices were independent of her. But slowly she became convinced that they had been speaking in the language that Professor Hindle had discovered. The language that Daniel was busily programming into computer code. If he succeeded, she might find a way of understanding the voices, and speaking back.
Daniel was not hurrying as much as she hoped, but he kept in regular contact, partly to update her on progress and partly to ask her advice on certain parts of the language. He was as incapable of remembering the words as she was, and wasn’t always clear what a particular piece of syntax might refer to. She often had to consult the notes herself, and was relieved that he was keeping them safe and ordered.
“Are you sure the computer will be able to learn the language?” she asked him at one of their progress meetings.
“It is learning it,” he said, giving her an odd look. “This is biology, not magic. Our brains can’t learn it because they’ve evolved not to. But computers aren’t built in the same way. It’s nothing to do with intelligence or understanding. It’s just that even the most basic device hasn’t got the same blocks that we have.”
“Then why is it taking so long?” She tried not to sound impatient, and he didn’t seem to take offense.
“I can’t just type it in. I have to scan it optically. That’s not difficult in itself, but I don’t think much to your friend’s handwriting. Mistakes get made under the best of circumstances, and I can’t double-check it myself. The best I can do is run algorithms to make sure that nothing that gets added to the language contradicts what I’ve already programmed.”
Today she had finally accepted a coffee in his room, although she was still worried that he might be trying to seduce her rather than discuss business. He had been particularly keen to talk, though.
“Arianna, I still think you haven’t thought this through. That business about the future tense. It’s not just missing—I’d swear it’s simply not part of the language. There are no clues to it in the remaining language. You can’t even say something nonsensical such as I did it tomorrow. There’s no way of expressing tomorrow. Next week doesn’t work either: next only seems to have meaning when referring to something that’s already happened, or in the sense of adjacent to. That’s one of the things that’s taking so long—it just doesn’t match up with any language I’ve ever come across. It’s not just a partially transcribed language, it’s one that was specifically designed—or rather evolved—not to have a future tense.”
Arianna sipped at her coffee carefully, as if he might have drugged it. “But isn’t that what’s so great about learning other languages? It’s their differences that matter. They show you how other people think.” This is a language of regret, she thought. You could dwell on what you’d done, what you wanted to do, what you could have done. But not what you will do.
“These are people who don’t perceive a future. And there’s a survival value in not being able to speak it. Think about that. It’s not just that the other languages won—it’s that speaking this language actually makes you less likely to survive. Who are you trying to talk to, Arianna?”
But she still had no answer to that. “Languages evolve as well as organisms,” she said. “And they can be made to evolve. If it’s got no future tense, it can be designed. All you have to do is change parts of the words. It would be like the subjunctive. The words would still mean the same thing, but they’ll be used in a different way. For those who know the secret, there’ll be a whole second language hiding within the first.”
“For those who know. What if they can’t know?”
And she could still hear the syllables in her head, the utterances that she felt were being repeated, but which she couldn’t hold on to. But she knew there was a message, something that she needed to know. If only Daniel could teach his computer to speak it.
She suspected that Daniel had finished the work long before he admitted to it. He turned up at her room, unannounced and unceremonious, with the Professor’s boxes, a USB stick and a few peripherals. “These belong to you,” he said, dumping the boxes on her desk. “And these are because I presume it didn’t occur to you to rig up a sensible microphone and speakers.”
“I thought the built-in ones would be enough,” she said.
“Firstly we need to install a program to record everything that comes in and out of the translator,” he said, taking charge of her laptop without asking. She was relieved that she’d closed down her journal when he knocked, and she wondered if he were installing some kind of spyware. “Then the translator itself. After that, it’s all yours.”
She waited impatiently for the software to install. It occurred to her to offer him coffee, but she simply didn’t want him staying any longer than necessary.
“Now it’s all go,” he said. “Two options, English and Hindlish. Unless you’ve thought of a better name for the language? There doesn’t seem to be one in the Professor’s notes.
“I’ve not given it any thought,” she said.
There was a second’s gap, then her own voice came out of the speaker. But it wasn’t speaking any words she recognized. And then she realized that she couldn’t remember any of the sounds.
“Your first words,” said Daniel. “And very apt they are too. Here.” He handed her the first paper that the Professor had given her, the one with the six words. “Read these out.”
She read the first one.
“Response,” said her own voice from the computer. She tried the second. “Chair.” The third was “owing”.
“They don’t tell you anything, they’re just random,” said Daniel. “These are from when the Professor was generating random syllables and recording the ones she couldn’t remember. I still don’t know who taught her the language itself.”
“I’ll learn it,” said Arianna. There was silence from the loudspeaker.
“I only want you to promise me one thing,” said Daniel. “Don’t do this on your own. Make sure I’m here as well. Or get one of your tutors involved, or even another student. But don’t do it on your own. There’s something very wrong with this.”
She shooed him out, no longer caring if she seemed rude.
That night she left the program running, and left the microphone by her pillow. She was aware of the voices speaking to her, at the back of her mind where they were drowned out by her own excitement. She knew that they would not clarify until she had stopped her own conscious thoughts, and she found this impossible to do. Usually she had no trouble dropping off to sleep, but tonight she just couldn’t empty her mind.
She was sure that she had lain awake for a couple of hours before her mind began to cloud over. Only then did she hear a voice clearly enough for her to make out the syllables.
She repeated the syllables out loud as soon as she heard them, becoming fully awake in an instant. Already, she could not remember what she had just said, but she had been able to repeat them instantly, as if she were repeating them off the page.
There was a short pause, and then her voice came out of the loudspeaker. “Stop,” it said.
She spoke into the microphone urgently. “Stop what?” she said. But her mind was fully alert, and she could hear no more voices. And when she fell asleep again, after what seemed to be more hours, she wasn’t aware of the gray time between awareness and sleep.
“That’s exactly what I asked you not to do,” Daniel said when he tracked her down the next day.
“I had to try it,” she said, feeling like a scolded child. She was actually surprised to see him angry.
“You do know what it wants you to stop?”
“I can’t back out of it now. I can change the language, Daniel. I can give them what they don’t have. A future tense.”
“And who do you think spoke to you?”
“I can’t say for certain. I can’t say why I think this. But I think it was Professor Hindle.”
Finally she said the word. Daniel must have guessed from the outset, but it was an idea that had built up slowly in her own mind. “Dead,” she admitted.
“If a dead person gave me an order, I’d take it seriously. Don’t use the program again, Arianna. Not until there’s someone else there.”
All she needed was a prefix, she thought. Just one that wasn’t already in use. She could work that out by trial and error—if the prefix already meant something, the translator would tell her. Then once the tense was constructed, she could teach it. And Professor Hindle would be the ideal student.
“Thursday night,” said Daniel. “I’ll be free then. I can come and watch you. If that isn’t too creepy for you. I assure you I’ll be the perfect gentleman.” She thought she could detect sarcasm in that, and she realized belatedly that he might be annoyed at her for not trusting him. “Just don’t take this any further before then. You can wait two nights.”
She was already thinking of the syllables she’d try.
“I can wait until Thursday,” she said. And she reckoned that he probably knew she was lying.
The new tense was ready in an hour or two. It seemed to be an ugly add-on to the language, not really joining it organically. But there it was. All she had to do was teach it.
But could you really teach the future to people who had no concept of it? And what would happen? Would the dead come alive?
This has to be right, she thought. The Professor still existed in some way. Her work wasn’t finished, let alone her life. She had to be given a way of communicating with the living.
Suppose the dead could learn to interact directly with the translator program. They would have their own speech. Artificial bodies could be created one day, not too far off. The dead would live again. All they needed was a future tense.
This time she found it simple to doze off that night, and she spoke out the syllables she heard without waking herself fully.
“Stop,” said her own voice from the laptop. “You must not learn our language.”
“I can change it,” she said in English. “I can add to it.”
The laptop translated her voice into strangely familiar syllables.
“Our language is for us, not you,” said the voice. She had been right: it was beginning to sound like the Professor. “You cannot speak it.”
“Why not?” she said.
“If you had learnt it, you would have become like us.”
“You would have become like me,” she said.
“No,” said the Professor. “No one changed the language. The language changed them. When you have learnt this language, your brain has changed. The doors that were closed became opened. Or, the open ones became closed.”
“I had something new to teach you.”
“Oh, Arianna,” said the Professor. “I tried to warn you.” It was a language of regret.
“I would have taught you the future tense,” said Arianna. That wasn’t right. “I could have taught you it. No, I did teach you. Only I didn’t. Come on Arianna, how were you going to say this?”
She was no longer speaking out loud, she realized.
“The language changed you,” said the Professor again, and Arianna knew that she understood what she had said, and was speaking the same language herself. “You became one of us when you began to speak the language. There is only the past. There has only ever been the past. Everything you wanted to do, you have not done.”
She was only dimly aware of her room now. She knew that she was still in her bed, but in some way she was receding from it.
“I was going to change the language,” said Arianna, in her new language, the language that had only a past. She had discovered why the brain resisted this language. She knew what particular structures had to operate in the brain so that it could use and understand it. This was the language of people whose brains had stopped, and now it was hers.
“It’s too late,” said the Professor. “Everything’s too late.”
She was still dimly aware of the world that she was leaving.
“There’s someone in the room,” she sensed. She was aware of being shaken, but it was too faint a sensation for her even to be irritated. “I think it’s Daniel.”
“Too late,” repeated the Professor.
“I should have said sorry,” she said, in her mind, where only the Professor could hear, although by now she felt that her mind was no longer inside her head. “I was going to say sorry.”
“I would have said sorry,” she tried again. “I didn’t say sorry.” She still had a vague idea that there was a way of doing so. She tried the subjunctive. “Had I said sorry, I might have lived. Were I to say sorry, I might live.”
She had thought that she could save everyone, but all she had done was cross over to join them. She thought again of the poor man who was trying to save her, who had warned her from the start, and whom she had treated only with suspicion. She felt nothing for herself, only pity for him. The unfairness of it tore at her. She saw that there was a core of anger to her, which flared up now into fury at the universe and the way the dice fell for those who tried to live in it.
“I will say sorry!” she yelled out, sitting suddenly upright in her bed and throwing off the desperate young man who had been trying to revive her. They stared at each other for a few seconds, both breathing heavily.
“That was useless,” she said finally. “If you were going to do chest compressions, I should have been on the floor, not the bed.”
He looked away, and she realized she was naked. She pulled the bedclothes over herself.
“Sorry to whom?” he said.
“No one,” she said. She could always do it later.
“These are only six words,” said Shauna, not even bothering to try to remember them.
“I don’t care,” said Arianna. “I want you to learn them.”
“Then why couldn’t you put them on a stick?”
She felt old. Young people cared nothing for actually learning nowadays. They just thought they could plug the knowledge into their brains and have done with it.
“Because I want you to try the old way first. You need to know why it’s important.”
But Shauna was surely right. This was the way forward, that hadn’t been available to Professor Hindle, and hadn’t been available to herself for most of her life. Arianna had avoided the language for most of her career, but had kept the Professor’s notes and Daniel’s program safe, and hidden. She knew that one day, it would be possible to take it up again.
And now she was sure that the time had come. As brains and computers were merging, the language could be held on the artificial part of your mind, while being accessed by the flesh part. You could run it on cells that had never been alive in the first place.
Shauna took the paper and left without saying a word. It seemed rude to Arianna, but that was the manners of the young for you. And Shauna was clever. There was no question about it, she was one of the most gifted linguists the university had seen, although so far only Arianna believed this. As long as the girl could find something to focus her talents on, she’d far surpass her tutor.
Shauna, she thought, was the person who had been about to change the language.
No, that wasn’t right. She was the person who could have changed it. Should have changed it.
“It’s time, then,” she said aloud.
“It’s time,” said the Professor.
“I haven’t labeled the files. Shauna hasn’t taken them. I need more time.”
“I didn’t choose the hour,” said the Professor. “And you’ve done well. The files are Shauna’s. And you chose the right person.”
Arianna tried to stand up, but couldn’t. “Why are you here?”
“So you weren’t alone when it happened.”
Her chest hurt, and she could guess why.
She had done all she would do. And to her mild surprise, she didn’t mind. She had never said sorry to Daniel, but he’d got the message. And she’d passed on the language to Shauna. Perhaps she could have written the new tense herself. Perhaps she could have found the way of teaching it.
But she hadn’t. And Daniel had gone, just as the Professor had gone, and now she was gone. And she had only a language of regret.
Copyright 2015 by Neil James Hudson