The Language Is a Silent Body

“But to begin to write, first I’ll have to find a language for my prose.
A language that draws it’s nouns from heaven and it’s verbs from hell.
This will be my language.”
Imre Bartók: The Year of the Goat


I was well into my final year at the Institute of Imaginary Languages at Háskóli Íslands in Reykjavík, when one day a policeman accompanied our head of institute, Professor Bokanov, to the grand lecture hall.

It was already ten o’clock but the Sun was nowhere to be seen, and the great windows of Tolkiensgarður, which usually provided a magnificent view of Mount Esja, were now like gigantic plates of obsidian, radiating a blackness so dense and thick it seemed you could swallow it if you stepped out into the street with an open mouth. But it was winter, after all, in Iceland. We were dwelling in the kingdom of the night, left to the mercy of demons of darkness, and we were all used to it.

Professor Bokanov was famous for his Resting Bitchface Syndrome, which condemned his face to an expression of perpetual disappointment with us and the world he had to live in, but obviously today was something different. Even the face of the cop who came with him was filled now with grave concern, a face we all knew well from the famously merry Instagram feed of the Reykjavík Police Force, usually full of kittens and ice cream and cool bikes and skateboards.

“Since the very foundation of our institute,” began Bokanov in a voice that evoked either a eulogy or a king’s resignation from an ancient throne, “we have been ridiculed and looked down upon by academics whose field of research happened to be on a plane of events they considered to be closer to ‘reality’ than ours. They kept asking for practical implementations of our work, claiming that it didn’t change anything in what they referred to as ‘the real world’. And on other days, I would tell you to just ignore these sad souls, and let them go fuck themselves. But today I’ll say something different. Today I’ll say that, well, ladies and gentlemen, now is your chance to prove them wrong.

“As I have been informed lately by this gentleman here from the Reykjavík Police Force, one of our students, Canadian citizen Miss Arwen Bailey, is missing. She has not been seen at her dorm room in Gamli Garður in the last 72 hours, nor at her classes, and every attempt to get in contact with her was without any result. There have been scarce sightings of her before, all of them confirming that Miss Bailey was in a state of great emotional distress and confusion. But so far we have no information on her whereabouts or wellbeing. On the other hand, what we do have from her is a personal diary she kept in which we have reason to believe she has recounted the events leading to her disappearance. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is exactly where you come in to the picture.

“Now I know perfectly well what you’re thinking. You’re hoping to hear that she was writing in Sindarin, in Dothraki or Klingon, or some other language of fiction that is broadly used in our institute. That would indeed simplify matters a great deal. But I’m afraid the situation is more complicated than that.

“You see, Miss Bailey arrived to our institute with a degree not only in applied linguistics as most of you, but also of psychology and psycholinguistics, and although you might have seen her most frequently at our Tolkien-related seminars, her line of research was quite peculiar even by our standards. She had this theory, or I might say conviction, that as every natural language carries in itself the historical memory of the community that speaks it, from legendary migrations and traumatic invasions or colonizations to eras of great wealth and security, so are all constructed languages fundamentally determined by the psychological profiles and personal histories of their initial creators.

“She first made herself known in our circles with a controversial paper on Esperanto, where she showed, much to the uproar of the Esperanto community generally known for its pacifism and lofty ideals, how this language originally conceived as a tool to facilitate world peace and the mutual understanding of peoples was equally marked by Zamenhof’s own traumatic experiences of the Polish and Lithuanian uprisings of his childhood and the deadly misunderstandings of the multiethnic population of his native Białystok. But soon she abandoned this field and moved on to the psychoanalysis of the tolkienic tongues, making her PhD thesis part linguistic inquiry and part biographical research on Tolkien himself. That was her main course of study, on which she was working quite diligently in the last few years, but we also know that it has led her to some even more arcane and unexplored territories.

“As Miss Bailey’s supervisor, I consulted with her regularly throughout the year, and during one such meeting, she revealed to me that what in fact really interests her nowadays are personal languages, invented and used by lonely individuals with no intention of making them available for a broader public, like the famous Lingua Ignota of Hildegard von Bingen, or the personal language the Australian author Robert Dessaix invented for his diaries. In these cases, she argued, the link between the most intimate memories and traumas of the individual and the structure of the languages they invented, was even more close and eminent. She likened her process to a sort of psycholinguistic autopsy, looking at the often deficient corpus of these languages as silent bodies under the clinical scrutiny of a pathologist, who is as interested in her subject’s natural anatomy as in its healed wounds and secret frailties.

“But why am I telling you all this?

“Well, because during our meeting she also suggested that her interest in these matters was not simply scientific curiosity, but also the background of a deeply intimate process. A process which could be called an auto-vivisection rather than a simple autopsy, as she was indeed developing her own personal language all this time, using it to process and handle some of her earliest childhood traumas. Which were, I might add, quite peculiar, Miss Bailey having been the subject of an ill-fated experiment of her parents, both of them hippies living in a far-off commune somewhere in rural Canada, and fans of Tolkien to the point of madness. They actually tried to raise her as the first native speaker of Quenya.

“Now you know very well that there are in fact many native speakers of Esperanto – one of your teachers, Mr. Ragnar Baldursson, is one, as are some amongst you – but in those cases the child was always bilingual, with one parent speaking to it in his or her natural language and the other in Esperanto. And needless to say, the corpus of Esperanto, both in terms of vocabulary and grammar, is quite sufficient to be used in everyday communication. But unfortunately for Miss Bailey, none of these alleviating factors were present in her first three years. Until the moment when a resilient social worker revealed her situation to authorities and succeeded in taking her case to court, she only heard from her parents bits and pieces of the beautiful poems and songs of the Quenya corpus, but nothing else. And that could have resulted in serious deficiencies in the development of her brain and intelligence, were it not for the brilliant couple of therapists who finally adopted her after the court case, dedicating years of their lives to giving her a mother tongue fit for human communication and normal mental development during her childhood. Eventually, she returned to her tolkienic roots in her later years, as it is known. But her personal language, it seems so far, is nothing like an alternative dialect of one of the elvish tongues, even if there are discernible characteristics of it that are of Quenya or Sindarin origin.

“And since right now her diary and her language are the only possible sources of information for us that could hopefully lead to us finding her, I proposed to the Reykjavík Police Force that we put together a team of volunteers from our institute that will endeavor on the mission of deciphering this text. I believe that we owe this to Miss Bailey as we would to any of our students, or in fact to any human being whose life may depend at this very moment on our doing well what we do. And you probably already guessed what major diplomatic concerns can arise from the disappearance of a Canadian citizen on Icelandic soil. Anyone who would be interested in undertaking this task, please let me know and follow me to my office, where we’ll be able to discuss this project in further detail.

“So, who’s in?”

I raised my hand.


Originally published in the Enigma issue of the Technologie und das Unheimliche fanzine.