March 23, 2008

Think of the Children

Geoff's discussion of the ridiculous amount of attention paid to the "fleeting expletive" problem in the United States reminds me of a concern that some Carrier people have with dictionaries, namely that they should not contain naughty words for fear that the children will learn them, as if their little minds will somehow be warped by learning the words that describe the central activity of human beings.

Carrier people who do not speak Carrier generally know a few common expressions such as Hadih "hello" and musi "thank you", a few basic words that they learn in language classes, such as lhi "dog" and duni "moose", and a few culturally salient terms, such as balhats "potlatch" and 'uza "noble in the clan system", but are unable to form a sentence because they know no verbs, which is crippling in a language in which just about everything is underlyingly a verb and in which verbs have hundreds of thousands of forms.

I've discovered, though, that if you get to know someone well enough, he or she almost always turns out to know one form of one verb: nyoosket, which is the first person singular subject with second person singular object optative affirmative of "to fuck". The optative has many uses, somewhat like the subjunctive in Romance and Germanic languages: it is, for example, the appropriate form to use in the "lest" construction, e.g. ...nyoosket whuch'a "lest I fuck thee", but on its own this form is best translated "I'm going to fuck you" or "would that I fuck you".

It turns out, then, that keeping naughty words out of the dictionary is ineffective: the non-speakers did not learn nyoosket from a dictionary. What is particularly ironic is that the single most important thing that those who are not native speakers of the language lack is the ability to conjugate and parse verbs, and that the one verb form that they are likely to know is assiduously avoided in language classes in spite of the fact that it is, from a pedagogical point of view, the ideal verb. Its stem is invariant and easy to pronounce, it requires no thematic prefixes (that is, the only prefixes that it includes are grammatical things like the subject and object and aspect markers), and it has a simple, straightforward meaning. If I had my way, the kids would be going around reciting: nyusket (I fuck thee), nyutesket (I am going to fuck thee), nyoosket (would that I fuck thee), nyuzusket (I fucked thee), lhoduket (let's the two of us fuck each other), etc.

Posted by Bill Poser at March 23, 2008 02:03 PM