The following eight fictional vignettes are from a series entitled, Figments.


There are no words for finishing in M’a’quat. No words for destination, outcome, achievement, or any of the other concepts that draw the rest of us forward.

Instead, that language has a multiplicity of terms to describe every deep and minute state of process—the process of growing older, the process of finding and perusing one’s vocation or life’s work, the process of being pregnant and the process of becoming a parent. They have words for the moment an idea begins to emerge, for when it fails to show itself completely, for the empty pauses between ideas, and even for the time in which one idea is waning to allow another to take its place.


In Welewa, each thing can be described using three different words. The first of the three words is reserved for everyday use; for the ordinary, the mundane. For instance the word tok means drum, but only in its most inert, objective state, as in, “Please move the tok out of the way.”

But when the very same drum is referred to as padarum, it implies a connection with the divine. At that point a host of other meanings spill forth. Padarum is the drum in the act of being played. It is also the tree that was felled and carved into its base, and the animal whose skin was tanned and stretched across its head. It is the maker of the drum and its players—past, present, and future. It is even the drum’s ultimate demise. Padarum is the drum’s soul; or rather the combined souls of everyone and everything that has been or will be transformed by it.

The third word for the very same drum is its shadow-name. It’s a secret word that must never be written or spoken aloud. For the shadow-name of the drum would call up everything it is not. It is believed that even a single use of a thing’s shadow-name may have the power to annihilate all that it is, was, or ever could be.


Every street, building, and park on one bank of the river is reflected on its opposite side, as if the river were a mirror. The languages spoken by the residents have followed suit. The word for left on one bank is the word for right on the other. Similarly, the word for up on one side is the word for down just across the water. Perhaps it’s needless to point out that conversations between the two—nearly identical—communities are, unfortunately, rather strained.


The inhabitants of the island are all immigrants, hailing from a multitude of countries. In the cacophony of different tongues the place has become known by too many names to name. And yet the people who live there are still motivated to communicate with one another.

Examining a short list of words that can now be understood by nearly everyone on the island, it becomes obvious that the sounds of every language are being simplified, making them easier to pronounce for natives of other lands. In essence, every word is blending and being reduced to its least common denominator.

Moreover, it would seem that all of the words in all of the different languages, are, in fact, moving toward becoming the exact same word. It’s now projected that some time in the relatively near future, after passing through a stage when they will all be pronounced “om,” they will further erode into complete silence.


The Ba are an agricultural people. During the course of any given year, they plant crops that sprout and grow; crops that are harvested, preserved, and stored.

They measure the year out carefully, taking the actions their crops require according to the regular appearance of the full moon. And at the culmination of each lunar cycle their language undergoes corresponding changes. To an outsider, these modifications would be relatively subtle. She might notice a different inflection, the addition of an occasional prefix or suffix, or even a rise in tone.

But these incremental changes add up. By midsummer, the language being spoken is so different from the one that was spoken in the short, cold days of winter, that the two are completely unintelligible. But like the seasons, the language is cyclical. Winter will once again pass into spring, and from the crops that have been harvested, preserved, and stored, seeds will again be gathered and sown. Yes, they are an agricultural people, the Ba.


The famous mathematician and linguist Elo believes that his people’s ancestors may have been less materialistic than the current generation, and may even have had words to distinguish individual numbers less than one hundred.

As they progressed from counting in ones to counting in tens, the word for an individual apple evolved to mean ten apples, and in turn, the individual apple came to require a prefix indicating that it was a tenth of an apple. Many centuries passed and eventually that same word for apple came to represent one hundred apples, with even more prefixes required to describe one hundredth of an apple.

According to Elo, by the time his grand children are teaching their own children to speak, the base number of the language is likely to be a thousand, or even ten thousand—unless his people return to the simpler life of their ancestors.


The children of Ga speak a language wholly different from that of the grownups. As they grow from youngsters to teens to adults, their language undergoes a dramatic metamorphosis, so that every inhabitant aged 25 and up will have spoken the languages of both a 15-year old and a 10-year old, but will no longer converse fluently in either one.


Sabian is a hard language to pin down. Its most gifted speakers are compelled to invent words as often as possible, and to develop their own signature style. Reusing a word someone else has invented is a faux pas verging on the taboo.

Thus, in conversation one person might express his sleepiness by saying that he is foshim. His wife may then respond that it’s only to be expected, as he always complains of being foshido. Their companion might then chime in, agreeing that he is the most ah-fosh person any of them has ever met. Were the same three people to have the exact same conversation a day later, they might instead use the words: ahwana, ahwanido, and l’ahwan.