Brandon Storm, excerpt from “Mis Idiomas”

Some people think languages are only used for communication, but this is far from the truth. Diferent people use language diferently. In Papua New Guinea, for instance, people use languages as weapons. This is not uncommon among Austronesian languages (I am even thinking of learning one, some parts of Los Angeles can be quite dangerous). This is why each Papuan tribe – some as small as only a few dozen people – have their own array of specialized languages to use in warfare. Some languages are poison-tipped arrows, and some languages are spears as long as trees, and some languages are impenetrable shields. Some linguists estimate that over 850 languages are spoken on the island.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎There was a time where dangerous languages were widespread and a malicious whisper in an unholy tongue could send a witch’s enemies to the grave. Little is known of these languages, however, as most were burned at the stake during the Dark Ages. Yet some say that such languages still live in secret. They say that you can still fnd them in the catacombs of Paris and the dark alleys of New Orleans and Port-au-Prince, on the barren steppes of the Ukraine and in the dense jungles of Cambodia and the Congo, in the bosoms of wizened old women who do tarot card readings at the Renaissance Fairs and in that Wiccan store on Cahuenga between Holywood and Sunset that sells incense and pentacles and gemstones and herbs.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎I have heard that in some countries it is even common to eat languages. As barbaric as this may sound, it has done much to advance peace in the Horn of Africa. During a recent famine in Somalia, every dialect of Somali was picked down to the bone. Some warlords even invaded Eritrea and devoured their languages. Now the Somalis and Eritreans are forced to speak Amharic – the language of their mortal enemies, the Ethiopians, the only language lefin the region afer the famine. I am told that everyone gets along much better now, although it is true that an essential part of East African culture may be lost forever. The linguistic world is full of moral ambiguity.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎The varied nature of languages applies not only to different cultures, but also to different individuals. My friend Zelda, for example – a world renowned pastry chef – uses her languages to bake. She could never find cooking utensils made from metal or ceramics to create such exquisite pastries as she gets from her languages. She uses her English as a muffin pan to bake perfectly formed muffins and cupcakes, German for strudel, Yiddish for homentaschen and macaroons and jelly donuts, Italian for tiramisu, Spanish to boil dulce de leche, Portuguese for fat tarts full of custard, Javanese for crushed ice with jackfruit and avocado, Japanese to pound mochi, Mandarin to fry crunchy sesame balls full of bean paste.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎Some people even use languages as body parts. There is a famous competitive eater who uses languages as extra stomachs. All of the pasta he eats goes into his Italian stomach and all of the kebab he eats goes into his Turkish stomach and all of the kimchi he eats goes into his Korean stomach and so on.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎I, however, use my languages for none of these things. The United Nations International Fund for Linguistic Development estimates that 6.3% of the world’s population manifests its languages as independent, sentient beings. Such languages have traditionally played important roles in human society – working, marrying, and even holding political office. Napoleon, it was recently discovered, was actually a language. He was the French spoken by a Corsican peasant who, in fact, had a very limited command of French, which historians speculate is why Napoleon had such a small stature and such an insatiable need to prove himself.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎Some languages you are born with, and others you acquire gradually over the course of your life through your own labor. I was born with three languages: English, Spanish, and Yiddish. My mother was a nice Jewish girl from Poughkeepsie who fell in love with a dark and handsome Sephardic man from Santiago. She followed him west to California, where they had a falling out. My mother went mad with grief and birthed me, alone and desperate, in a halfway house in East L.A. The Mexican nurses there raised my English, my Spanish, and me but nobody knows what happened to my Yiddish. I think maybe my mother abducted it and is keeping it in her own pile of Yiddish to have all to herself. I wouldn’t even know that I ever spoke Yiddish if the Mexican nurses hadn’t told me.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎My Spanish, in many ways, is the black sheep of my languages; he marches to the beat of his own drums. He never went to college. Instead, he went to live on an island in the Second World that only languages can go to, where he still lives most of the year. He farms Brussels sprouts and lima beans. He basks in the sun out on his fields where they grow around him.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎Out of all my languages, I have the most strained relationship with my Japanese. She was the only language I learnt in school, and I believe it is because of this that she is the most formal as well as the most distant. There was a time, when I was first learning her in high school, that I thought she was the love of my life. She was beautiful and commanding. She made me clean and precise.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎As I learned to speak her, she had me mark subjects with ha, direct objects with wo. She had me mark time with ni, place with he. She had me mark possession with no, intensity with dai, emphasis with yo. The whole world was marked with particles. We marked the end of every statement with a copula, desu.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎My Japanese was very fond of copulas. I was very shy. I had never copulated before. When her parents were not home, I would come over after cross-country practice, and she would take me to her room. She would take off her clothes and straddle me as I knelt on her tatami mats. She would smile and grind herself against my sweaty gym shorts.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎Eventually, my Japanese and I ran into problems. She was becoming more possessive than the particle no. She did not give me enough space. She took me for granted. She treated me like I was just a copula to mark the end of her statements.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎After we graduated, I told her we needed to stop copulating. She was huffy and incredulous and refused to have an open, meaningful dialogue about our relationship. Neither of us got any closure. I feel uncomfortable speaking Japanese even to this day.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎Right now, I’m working as a patent inspector in Los Angeles. I inspect interesting ideas all day. My patent agency specializes in household objects that double as weapons to ward off unlikely catastrophes. I recently approved a patent for garden hoses that switch from spraying water to spraying herbicides, for when your tomato plants suddenly turn into homicidal, flesh-eating weeds. (This is a big problem in Irvine at the moment. The owner of my favorite Vietnamese sandwich shop was swallowed whole). I’ve approved patents for backpacks that double as parachutes, so that your child does not go splat if the foor suddenly falls out from under him. I’ve approved patents for baking soda that removes not just bad odors but bad spirits, for when your refrigerator suddenly becomes possessed and tries to flatten you.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎Although I am content at my patent agency, I know I will never live up to my Japanese. While I studied patent law at community college, she went to Stanford and studied art history and anthropology. She is a talented visual artist. She works in mixed media. Back when we were copulating, she would spread big white sheets of paper over her tatami mats and have me lie on them naked. She would splatter my body with paint and food products, with plaster and found objects. She was like a sexy, Japanese Jackson Pollock standing over me with her brush.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎At Stanford, she took a semester off to come home and intern for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Everyone loved her there. People love my Japanese until they become intimate with her.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎After Stanford, my Japanese became a curator at the Japanese American Museum in Little Tokyo, a neighborhood in downtown L.A. Everyone was very impressed with her. My Japanese bought a loft near the museum and became very fashionable. She spends more on skirt suits than I make in a month of inspecting patents. She speaks tersely and moves decisively. She travels to Europe and Japan to curate temporary exhibits. She usually gets what she wants. She wanted a boyfriend who was three and a half years younger and worked as an underwear model and a performance artist; she wanted him to shave half his head and dye the other half black; she wanted him to copulate with her frequently, while trying not to become too intimate with her. She and Dimitri have been dating for five months now.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎My Japanese and I have remained friends, despite the lack of closure from our relationship. Every Wednesday we go get boba at a shop in Little Tokyo staffed by Korean girls with bleached blonde hair and big smiles. We suck the big, black orbs of tapioca through the fat, striped straws and make small talk.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎I am jealous of Dimitri, although I know it would be unhealthy to get back together with my Japanese. I need a new girl. Someone I can take out to dinner and tell all about the patents I have inspected that day. I asked my Spanish if he could introduce me to a girl, but he introduced me to a boy instead. My Spanish was engaged to marry this boy’s Spanish, but as everyone knows, languages can’t be married unless the people who speak them are also married. I had never considered dating a boy before, but I wanted my Spanish to be happy. Afer getting postcards from my Spanish about how lovely it was to lay and bake in the sun in his lima bean fields with his fiancé beside him, how could I say no?
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎So I married the boy who spoke the Spanish that my Spanish was in love with. My Japanese was against it, but my Japanese is against everything I do. Mi japonés es muy compleja.