The Way We Speak Now

by Angi Becker Stevens Read author interview March 28, 2011

The first word we lost was the name of that thing with the buttons, the one you speak into to talk to someone who is far away or at least not in the same room. The thing you call people with. We woke up one day and the word was just gone, no one anywhere could remember it. It even vanished from dictionaries, as far as we knew, though in all fairness no one could recall how to spell it to look it up. At first we thought it might just be a fluke, but a few days later another word went missing, this time the word for those gray strips of pavement—not roads, but the ones for walking. After a few more words had disappeared, we realized it was just going to keep on that way. There didn’t seem to be any connection between the things that no longer had names; some were objects and some were places and some were feelings or foods or parts of the body. The tall things with leaves that grow out of the ground and up toward the sky, those things we get wood from. The things we put on our feet before we go outside. The joint where our legs bend. The specific emptiness we feel when we need to be fed.

Some people have had the idea to try to come up with replacements, but the new words just won’t stick, as if this is not really a matter of words abandoning us, but of things that refuse to be named.

At some point we lost track of how many words have gone. There’s no doubt anymore whether they have been vanishing from dictionaries as well—dictionaries are getting thinner. Other books are not getting thinner, but are merely developing empty spaces. I wonder how long it will be before they are filled with blank pages, every last one turned into a sketch pad, or a journal if there’s anything left to write.

So far, we have managed to adapt. There are ways to describe almost anything. Sometimes I think about this game we used to play when I was a kid, where you tried to make your teammates guess a word without using a certain list of closely related words, like you would not be able to use the word “orange” if you were trying to make someone guess “carrot.” When we lost the word for the color of the sky, I thought about how maybe playing that game was good practice. I can’t remember the name of the game, but I don’t think it’s a vanished word. I think it’s something I just forgot on my own.

The words that are gone are like hundreds of tiny phantom limbs. They feel constantly like they are on the tip of my tongue. The sensation reminds me of the way I felt during the final few months my lover and I spent together, like I always had a mouthful of words I could not form the right shape for no matter how many ways I tried to arrange my lips and my tongue and my teeth. It was like waking up on the very edge of remembering a dream, that feeling of being so goddamn close to something but still so far away it was useless, might as well have been on the other side of the universe.

Sometimes I wonder how many words have disappeared that I have not even noticed because they are words I seldom ever use. It would probably take me a long time to realize, for example, if “horticulture” or “uvula” or “bismuth” went away. Every once in a while I flip through the dictionary, just to remind myself of how much is still left.

The way we speak now: like we are always trying to explain things to visitors here who barely speak our language. We say: the clear smooth stuff that you look through to see outside if you are indoors. We say: the box with the moving pictures on it that we watch to forget real life. We say: the buildings we live in. The animals with feathers that can usually fly but sometimes cannot. The specific injury when you touch something too hot or stay too long in the sun. Sometimes I think it sounds like a kind of poetry, and other times I just think we all sound simple-minded and slow. We are all like visitors here now.

It didn’t bother me when we lost the word for the metal things we ride in to get from one place to the next. But I cried when I realized we’d lost the name for the tiny dots of light you can see up in the sky in the nighttime. I can’t explain why, but that was the only word I really mourned, a loss that ached like a small death.

I think about how my lover and I were always trying to find more words, as if language was the thing that could put us back together again. But maybe what we needed all along was to say less. When I think of him now, what I remember is not anything he ever said. I remember breathing into his neck, and the way I would slide my arms up inside of his jacket not for warmth but because I could never figure out how to feel close enough to him. What I felt was always a wanting—I wanted him even when I was with him, a longing lodged squarely beneath my breastbone, inside some dull-thumping muscle I used to have a name for. And I wonder sometimes what would happen now if I called him and said nothing at all, if it’s possible somehow for the mere sound of my breath to release all those ghosts of words trapped inside my throat, to tell him all the things that have become unspeakable.

About the Author:

Angi Becker Stevens spends her time playing with her five-year-old daughter, selling robot supplies at 826michigan, and studying creative writing and philosophy at Eastern Michigan University, where she received the 2009 Jumpmettle award for fiction. Her stories can be found in future issues of Barrelhouse, Pank, Dogzplot, flatmanCrooked, Annalemma, Beeswax, and a forthcoming anthology, 30 Under 30.

About the Artist:

Gay Degani is the content editor at Smokelong Quarterly. She has had three of her flash pieces nominated for Pushcart consideration and won the 11th Annual Glass Woman Prize. Her suspense novel, What Came Before, was published in 2014.  Founder and editor emeritus of Flash Fiction Chronicles, she blogs at Words in Place where a complete list of her published work can be located.