The Prison-house of Language23 min read


Elana Gomel
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I did not speak until I was six.

My parents were offered the usual platitudes: Einstein did not speak until he was in primary school (not true); did you try a body-based therapy (the answer a horrified “no!”); she will never shut up when she starts (in high school, I would often go for days without opening my mouth; I still do). I was lucky, though, that my parents, being constantly on the move and totally wrapped up in each other, paid little attention to my disability. I was not diagnosed until much later in life. I was not medicated. When our three-person family settled down in some place for longer than a couple of months, I was given intermittent speech therapy, which produced no results whatsoever. I was not bullied in the various schools I attended; just ignored. When I reached adolescence, my exotic looks—green eyes and cocoa-colored skin—drew attention of boys, so I never lacked company. I liked sex because it precluded the need for conversation.

Language always felt, to me, like an invasion. When it finally came, it filled my mouth like a handful of grinding stones. I often experience a physical pain producing words: some words more than others. It has little to do with their meaning and a lot with their shape. Words like “love,” “delegate,” “serendipity,” and “confabulate” make my gums bleed. Others, like “kismet” and “friendship,” are puke-colored. Still others, like “starch” and “optimize,” are glass-transparent, but can be dangerous if broken into sharp little syllables. Language, to me, is a dangerous and unwanted thing, a brutal intrusion into my inner space.

I became a linguist.

It’d be easy to say that I was looking for a language I could speak without spitting blood, but that would be an oversimplification. I can learn a new language in a week and retain it forever. Occasionally, I pull out a retired language from my mental storage and examine it, hoping that it has somehow matured into compatibility while fermenting in my mind. But this never happens. Swahili is the closest to a neutral means of communication I can use, but it still gives me a cluster headache. Standard Arabic is like chewing a rose-flavored gum: pleasant at first, but soon nauseating. English is the worst: rock fragments rolling in my mouth and battering my teeth. Even writing it requires wearing a mouth-guard, so I won’t shatter my expensive dental-work.

For a while, I tried to use a tablet to communicate. But the admiration of my classmates when I faultlessly answered any question asked by a randomized language program in the same tongue, aided only by my brash self-confidence, was too heady. Boys told me I had a beautiful voice. They say that Renoir painted despite excruciating arthritic pain. I convinced myself that I was like him—a solitary genius, overcoming the weakness of the flesh by the sheer force of will.

This, of course, had been before my father’s death. Afterwards, I hugged my pain as a substitute. Or an atonement.


The call came as I was researching one of the recently extinct Australian languages, Bidyara. This was my own pet project that had nothing to do with my official job as a translator to the UN. I was trying to recreate the first language, the primal language spoken by our hominine ancestors. This is an idea universally considered to be antiquated, anti-scientific, and vaguely racist, on a par with the medieval attempts to figure out the language of God. Naturally, it became an obsession. I have been repeatedly told that OCD is part of my “condition.” It is the only part I enjoy.

The window blinked into existence, overlaying the phonetic grid I was peering at, and the face of an old woman stared disapprovingly at my attenuated attire: knickers and a tube top. I knew she was old because her porcelain skin had that weird, glassy sheen that repeated gene-juve leaves in its wake. I actually like it and am looking forward to acquiring my own—in about thirty years ifeverything goes well with my stock portfolio. Rejuvenation does not come cheap.

“Dr. Abdoul?” the woman asked. “Dr. Sophia Abdoul?”

I was silent. I don’t waste my limited speech tolerance on small talk. She knew who she had called.

The old woman sighed. She was generically beautiful, with one of those faces that, as Oscar Wilde had quipped, once seen, are never remembered.

“We would like to hire you,” she said. “A special project, full non-disclosure, B1- pay-grade. Starting immediately.”

I lifted a brow. Non-verbal communication is not painful, just irritating.

“The Peace Corps,” she clarified.

The Army.


We are made by language. It has dug an impassable trench between us and our animal brethren, who peer at us across this divide with their mute, opaque eyes. Animals have various communication systems, some quite sophisticated. But human language is structured quite differently from these systems. Note that I say “language,” not “languages.” All human tongues have the same underlying grammar. The old Chomsky theory that language is a sort of universal module, miraculously slotted into our brains at birth, has often been challenged, but never disproven.

Something went wrong when this slotting happened to my brain. My DNA has been mapped, and a number of mutations pinpointed. Some could be reversed. As with all gene-therapies, the consent for this reversal had to be given by the recipient at the appropriate legal age (which happened to be twelve in South Sudan, where my parents were stationed to monitor another interminable civil war that had come on the tail-end of yet another patented crop’s failure). I was asked; at the time, I refused. My parents did not pressure me.

I still occasionally call my mother, blot out my end, and have exactly five seconds to look at her until, tired of fruitless “Who is it?”, she disconnects and blacklists another disposable number.


The old woman’s name was Major Stella Rostoff. The name, Russian in origin, did not suit her. On our way to the Project’s location, I amused myself by figuring out what language she should be speaking as her mother tongue. I decided it should be Azeri, full of quick, bit-off words that sound like curses or commands.

She spoke English, of course, and badly, too: with meandering sentences and unnecessary repetitions. Finally, I just asked for the relevant material to be downloaded to my implant and reviewed it in blessed silence.

As the result of this review, I had to risk a toothache by speaking.

“Why am I here?” I asked.

Stella looked at me in amazement.

“Your unique qualifications …” she begun.

“I am a linguist. This is brain science. Take me back.”

I had reached my limit of pain-free speech and had no intention to continue unless I was paid, so I mutely ordered my AI to stop the car, which resulted in our fishtailing across the tawny-colored Mojave Desert. Fortunately, we had passed the electronic fence, plastered with threatening signs, some time ago, so there were no other cars to hit.

“Whoa, whoa!” Stella’s AI returned us to the dusty tarmac and pulled off. “Didn’t you get to the part about the after-effects?”

I had glanced at it, but now I called it up again. I reluctantly admitted that she may have a point. In any case, a second thought occurred to me: a B1-pay-grade was nothing to sneer at in the time of depressed markets. My portfolio was not doing as well as I needed it to be doing.

I stared at the faces of the volunteers. They all looked grey, somehow, and I wondered whether this was another side-effect or sheer exhaustion. A human being can go on without sleep for about seven days. After that, hallucinations, delusions, and severe cognitive impairment set in. Two weeks of sleeplessness kill rats and presumably humans. These people had been awake for at least four days, on the average. It was not because they could not sleep. It was because they refused to do so. They drank coffee until their heartbeats spiked up into the danger territory; they paced their rooms; they beat their heads on the wall; they stuck knives and scissors into their flesh to keep themselves from nodding off. But a person can only stay awake by the sheer force of will for so long. Eventually, they drifted off into slumber one by one. And when they did, they did not wake up.

I scrolled through the files to see how many of them were in a coma. It seemed more than sixty percent. The others were holding sleep off, but only just.

I risked another grind of words on my molars.

“How were they chosen?”

“Volunteers,” Stella replied.

This was what the files said, but I did not believe it. I stared at her until she looked away.

“Refugees,” she said. “Promised asylum.”

This was interesting, if only because it confirmed what I had gathered from their names and faces: they were of all ethnicities and all mother tongues. And yet they all gabbled alike, producing an unending stream of the same gibberish.

It is actually quite hard to make up a language. Whatever mother tongue you originally spoke would emerge from under the artificial agglomeration of random sounds like the bedrock from under the swirls of windblown sand in the desert. And even if somebody came up with a truly new vocabulary, the essential structure of all human languages—the Chomsky module—would still be there. Examples abound: like a group of deaf kids in Nicaragua in the 1970s developing their own sign language, or the pompous tongues of bad fiction, from Elvish to Klingon.

But the sounds produced by the sleep refuseniks of the Project, while undoubtedly articulate and quite complex, did not fit any phonetic template I could think of. And they were uniform across the group, regardless of whether it was Rima from Lebanon or Augul from Xinjiang speaking.

“Translate?” I asked as the car sped across the baked landscape.

Stella gave me a contemptuous glance.

“The best AI translation programs,” she said. “No results.”

The subtext was that they would not bother with me if their precious machines could do the job. I could not argue with that.

The warm air, smelling of sagebrush and dust, caressed my face when we exited the car, having gone through the gauntlet of discreetly camouflaged security cameras. I like the dry calm of deserts. It is the wet heaviness of coastal cities that I have a problem with.

The Project was located in a sunken structure, whose mirrored dome was painted orange and dark rose by the garish sunset. I looked up into the pink sky as I followed Stella across the forecourt. There was nothing to see, of course. All that peering into the universe with powerful telescopes in search of a sign—and all in vain. The real thing had been hiding in plain sight within this glorified military bunker. Or rather, within the brains of the refugees who cowered in their brightly lit cells, afraid to go to sleep.

The aliens.


There is a story in Herodotus that Pharaoh Psamtik I, eager to know what the first language spoken by humans was, ordered two babies to be brought up by deaf-mutes. Supposedly, the children started spontaneously babbling in Phrygian. Subsequently, other curious tyrants repeated this atrocious experiment. The primordial tongue varied according to the expectations of the culture: Hebrew, Latin, even, in some versions, French. Now we scoff at those crude attempts to dig down to the roots of humanity. Children reared with no linguistic interaction would not speak at all. And yet … there must have been the ur-language, spoken by the original band of hominines who rolled over the planet, exterminating their mute cousins. Wouldn’t you like to know what it sounded like?

But perhaps an even more interesting question is: what was there beforelanguage? The empty slot of the Chomsky module: had it truly been empty before the plug of universal grammar was shoved in?


I showered off the dust of the desert journey in the tiny bathroom of my assigned quarters, which contained a bed, a wardrobe, and a sim-window. Irritatingly, it showed surf on the sodden beach. I tinkered with the controls and succeeded in calling up a forest scene with a spastic rabbit that twitched alarmingly, due to some programming glitch. Still, it was better than the alternative. The quarters were Spartan, to put it mildly, but thanks to my upbringing, I am very adaptable. My parents, observers for the UN Human Rights Committee, had been very relaxed about such things as tables, chairs, and indoor plumbing.

At least the dome was warm. I hate layers of clothing and go naked when the occasion calls, which has the added advantage of signaling to potential sex partners without having to go through the torture of small talk. But the only people of the Project I had met so far had been Major Stella and a glum neurobiologist called Aziz, who exhibited all the symptoms of an incipient nervous breakdown. Neither of them was to my taste, so I put on shorts and a top and went exploring.

I was stopped by a soldier before I got very far, and it took a call to Stella to straighten things out. She showed up in person, looking peeved.

“I thought you’d want to go over the recordings first,” she said.

“Sleep,” I started to say, but seeing incomprehension on her face, realized I was speaking in Old German. It fills my mouth with a meaty aftertaste, but it was better than the rattling stones of English. My teeth were already throbbing.

“Sleep,” I repeated, determined not to say another word, but she understood. Perhaps I had underestimated her. Even stupid people are improved by experience, and who was to say how many years our blonde, ponytailed major had spent in the military?

She nodded reluctantly.

“Yes,” she said, “they cannot hold out much longer without sleep. And no matter what we do, we cannot wake them up. Scans show alterations in the frontal lobe, but unlike any other pathology we have ever seen. Very well, try to talk to them. Follow me.”


It all started with the Fermi paradox, of course. You know: if there are aliens, where are they? Tons of verbiage promising a solution; SETI programs; search for inhabitable planets … and nothing. Not a peep.

And then somebody had a bright idea. The name of that genius was blotted out in my records, but I did not care who it was. The consequences were all that mattered.

Perhaps, so the thinking went, aliens are in fact all around us, but we cannot see them because our perception is limited and skewed by language. It has long been argued that language conditions not only what we can say, but what we can think and see. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, it is called, though I prefer the poetic phrase “the prison-house of language.” I don’t remember its origin, but it has stuck with me and apparently with whoever was behind the Project. They suggested that we break down the prison-walls and let our perception roam free. Perhaps then, we can actually contact the aliens.

The idea sounded loopy to me, but the military was persuaded, though a more cynical interpretation may suggest that they just wanted to do something with the refugees accumulating in the island camps. So, the Project was set up. It had a code name, but everybody just called it the Project, which had a certain logic to it: if you want to get rid of language, use as few words as possible.

The details of the brain intervention that the subjects had undergone were too technical for me, but it was clear they involved switching off several genes involved in language acquisition, including the famous FOXP2, and switching on some dormant bits of DNA. Astonishingly, instead of just plunging the subjects into a coma straightaway, this brain-scrambling produced spectacular results. First, the so-called volunteers, who had apparently not known each other before the experiment, started falling asleep and waking up simultaneously, even when they were kept apart. Second, their dreams became synchronized, as well. Dream-recording equipment is still crude and unreliable, but they were able to obtain some spectacular footage, which I reviewed with increasing disquiet. And finally, though they lost the capacity to use their native languages, they did not stop speaking. Just the opposite: as the tapes showed, they gabbled incessantly. I was reminded of the glossolalia of charismatic sects, even though this oozing of agglutinated phonemes sounded more uniform than anything produced by ecstatic worshippers. But if this was a language, it was unlike anything else on Earth.

And this was where I came in.


Rima Habibi was a pretty, slim girl with brown hair and blue eyes like many Lebanese; the Crusaders’ genetic legacy, more durable than the crumbling stones of Beaufort Castle. She looked underage to me, and I seriously doubted she was legally competent to give consent, but such niceties had been almost forgotten in the last decade of renewed political upheavals. She was wedged into the corner of her cell. Her hand was bleeding from where she had repeatedly struck it against the edge of the table. I crouched in front of her, despite the obvious disapproval of Stella, who hovered at the entrance with an armed guard peering over her shoulder.

I spoke to Rima in Lebanese Arabic, which, as opposed to other Arabic dialects, tastes of aniseed. It is my favorite, so I may have cheated by choosing her, though it quickly became clear that it made no difference, as she did not react at all. I was observing her carefully, and there was not even an unconscious twitch or eye movement, which always accompanies the sounds of a familiar language. I spoke to her in French. I even tried Armenian, even though her file stated she was a Christian Arab. No luck.

But she did speak, though it did not seem to be in response to what I said. She was gabbling on over me, pouring forth a flood of shocking syllables. I listened carefully for a while, and then I leaned forward and dabbed away the blood on her hand with an analgesic tissue I had brought with me.

I discovered myself on the floor, cartoon stars in my eyes, stickiness on my brow that split open as Rima’s delicate hands smashed me into the wall. The armed guard was yelling as he pushed her face down on her cot while Stella tried to lift me up. I stopped the commotion by getting up myself and telling the guard to leave the subject alone.

When we were outside, I turned to Stella.

“It’s not a human language,” I said.

“You mean it’s not one you know?”

“I mean it’s not one anybody knows. It does not have the structure of a human language. It’s outside the Chomsky module.”

She frowned, looking dubious.

“It sounds articulate.”

“So do thrushes’ songs.”

“And you can’t translate it?”

She sounded both disappointed and relieved, and I thought that perhaps she was not as invested in the success of the Project as she made out to be. Thoughts of retirement? Or … fear?

“I will,” I said. “But for this, I need to step outside the prison-house. I need to go into their dream.”


After what happened to my father, I had decided I no longer wanted my talent. The mutant genes in my brain could be switched off, at least some of them, and so I canceled the form I had signed in South Sudan and contacted the UN hospital in Istanbul. The procedure was too dangerous to be done at once, and I was to be hospitalized for a couple of weeks. I was alone; a fifteen-year-old with no visitors. They did something that resulted in bouts of nausea, blurred vision, and inability to remember Aramaic suffixes. I was set on continuing when I got a letter from my mother saying, essentially, that she never wanted to see me again. I checked myself out of the hospital that very day.

The thing is, the gene that they had switched off was one of the suite that the Project’s subjects had had tampered with. In my brain, it clearly had played a different role: before my aborted procedure, I had been multilingual, rather than aphasic, and remained so after it. Even my Aramaic had come back. But what if the expression of this gene was somehow triggered or modified by the presence of others with a similar mutation? What if switching it back on would enable me to enter their shared dream-space without losing my ability to understand and speak human language? It was a slender hope, but it was all we had. The number of awake subjects dwindled every day. Rima was found curled up in her bed a couple of hours after our altercation. And if no one remained awake, who would I speak to, once I learned their language?

Having a mild anesthetic injected into my forearm, I seemed to float into some inchoate pink room, warm and cozy. But then I heard the sound of waves and smelled the fuggy rot of seaweed drying on the polluted shore.


This was supposed to be the last assignment I would accompany my parents on. I was growing up and my talents had drawn the attention of various UN agencies. I had a place reserved for me in a very exclusive boarding school. But I had never been to Turkey before—or since.

Izmir, on the shores of the Aegean Sea, is one of the most beautiful cities of the region. But all I remember are the sluggish waves stirring the slime-covered pebbles and the rusty splatters of blood on the cobbles of Kemeralti.

The Circassian rebellion was winding down as we arrived, put down with efficient brutality by the government. It was our bad luck that a splinter group ran into us just as we were exiting the cab in front of the Karaca Hotel. They herded us away with curses and much waving of their antiquated rifles. They were speaking a sub-dialect of the Circassian, which I had not encountered before. It sounded like mint and wood varnish.

They blindfolded us and took us to a secret location. I heard them say its address several times. I also heard them say that we were not to be harmed, as they intended to trade us for a promise of safe passage to the Circassian Free Republic, which was to survive another month or so. I was not particularly worried, and neither were my parents, who had been in similar situations before. They knew that the way to handle the captors was to be as open and truthful as possible.

The window in the small room was barred, but the sash was raised to let air in, and it smelled of fish-rot. Didn’t they realize that we could figure out our location without understanding their rapid-fire chat? Perhaps it was the intimation of our perfidy, rather than any real need to keep their paltry secret. Perhaps they subconsciously believed that the UN represented some promise of fairness in the world that was about to come crashing down around them.

They brought us tea and talked to my father in Turkish, which he had immediately told them he knew. They did not address my mother and me, us being mere women, and gave us white scarves to cover our hair, even though the rebellion was supposed to be secular and nationalistic, in opposition to Turkey’s theocratic regime. Maybe that set me off. Or maybe it was just thoughtlessness. I don’t remember.

One of them addressed their leader in Circassian, telling him they did not know how to get in touch with the UN Headquarters to inform them they had their people.

“It’s in our phones, you fool!” I said, proud of my perfect pronunciation of his rough dialect. “Just dial! And do it quickly, I want out of this hole. They say Çeşme is a tourist town; sure doesn’t look like one!”

I can still see the shock on their faces. And then the man who had spoken roughly dragged my father out of the room. He had lied to them, hadn’t he? If his slip of a daughter could speak their obscure language so well, clearly the envoy and his family had prepared for this mission for a long time, ready to spy on the beleaguered freedom fighters. Who knew what schemes they were hatching with the hated government in Istanbul?

They did nothing to my mother and me. Perhaps they simply ran out of time, as the army raid that freed us happened less than an hour later. My father’s body was found on the beach. They had cut out his tongue.


I felt exactly the same after the procedure, so I suspected it had not worked. Stella, harried as her stock of human guinea pigs dwindled every hour, wanted me to take a sleeping pill in the middle of the day, but I refused. Soporifics interfere with REM sleep. I listened to the tapes again, analyzing my one-sided interaction with Rima in audio and video. It struck me that her eyes did not seem to focus properly. One pupil was more dilated than the other.

I had a glass of red wine and fell asleep on my institutional bed.

I was walking on the rocky beach, or what seemed like a beach, only without any body of water to define its boundaries. Round stones, ranging in size from a bullet to an infant’s head, slipped and tumbled under my bare feet. Some were furred with slimy weeds, others gave moistly, as if they were made of cheese. Sheets of fog whipped and danced around me, but there was no wind, and the air was as warm as blood. I followed the sound of breakers, but no matter how fast I tried to run or in what direction I turned, the surf was always one step ahead of me, too close but never close enough. Soon I realized that it was not a surf at all, but a multitude of people speaking together, their words blending into a meaningless noise.

A human shape loomed in the fog and advanced toward me. It was Rima, but something had happened to her. Her face had elongated into a muzzle like a dog’s. She stared through me as she shambled by. A couple of others followed; I had seen them lying unresponsive in their hospital beds. They had all undergone some transformation, but it was different in each case. A man crawled on splayed flippers like an amphibian. Another hopped on a thick pad his legs had fused into. A woman cradled a big leech that suckled at her breast.

I opened my mouth to hail them and swallowed a wad of the warm fog that wormed its way into my gut, as comforting as my mother’s milk, whose taste I had forgotten. There were no words anymore. The parasites had been expelled from my brain.

I dropped to my knees and started digging through the rocks, sorting through them and setting aside the right ones. It took a long time, except there was no time on the beach and no need to hurry, though hurry I did. Some of the stones were sharp-edged and broken, cutting my fingers, so that blood dripped into the hollow I made, and I was glad, hoping it would lure the right ones to the surface. There were stones beneath stones beneath stones. Some bit back when I separated them from their brethren. Some rolled away. Some licked me. And all the while, the susurrus of voices went on and on.

Finally, I had my pile. There was a yellow, porous stone like a chunk of bread with a little hole in the middle. There was a smooth, green-veined pebble. There was an agate that blinked at me with a black mildew spot. There was a bigger rock sparkling with an incrustation of pale crystals. And a couple of smaller ones, whose colors and shapes were as irrefutable as pain.

But I still missed one. I looked around in desperation when a man appeared out of the fog.

It was my father. A glistening tentacle like that of a squid hung out of his mouth. He gave me the last stone and passed by me, disappearing into twilight.


“The Project has succeeded,” I told Stella. She poured me another cup of tea and sat in the big armchair, staring at me. In the lifeless fluorescent light, I could see tiny lines on her taut cheeks.

“You mean, they are talking to aliens?”

I shrugged. My throat was raw, as if I had been screaming, which, apparently, I had. The oversweet tea did little to mask the metallic taste of blood and wet stone.

“Not sure that the aliens are still around. Perhaps. Perhaps they come to check on their handiwork from time to time.”

“But that language …”

“It is not the aliens’ language,” I said. “Everything else is, but not this.”

“What do you mean?”

I swallowed more hot liquid. I was parched.

“It is the original pre-human language. Or rather, the pre-human communication system. What we used when we were like chimps, or songbirds, or bees. Before the implantation of the Chomsky module.”

“You mean the aliens gave us language?”

“Sure. There is no way language could have evolved naturally. It is just too different, too complex. Too much of a piece. Could not have come about in incremental steps like everything else. Pre-human hominids had communication, sure, just like chimps and bonobos have today. Maybe more so, judging by how vocal your subjects are. But this was not language. And then the aliens came and tinkered with our brains and gave us the capacity for recursion and embedding and syntax. And everything else that has built the prison-house. Where we are today.”


“I don’t know,” I lied.

“So,” she said slowly, “language is a parasite. An alien parasite that has taken over and separated us from the rest of our biosphere. Made us what we are: strangers on our own planet.”

I stared at her in amazement. I had clearly underestimated Major Stella.

“Yes,” I said.

“But how is it that you are so different?”

I shrugged.

“I’m a mutant. Not that surprising, actually; mutations are ubiquitous. My Chomsky module is … improperly fitted, I guess, is a way to put it. We must all have a remnant of the pre-hominine communication system lodged in our brains, but the Chomsky module overrides it, presses it down into the darkness of dreams. But mine is unusually active. And to compensate, my Chomsky module also kicks into a hyper-drive, growing bigger, more active, more developed …”

“A parasite trying to suppress the host.”

I nodded. Suddenly I just wanted to be alone. Talking to Stella was easier than any other conversation I had had in my life because the tastes and the smells and the textures of language had receded, leaving my mouth pristinely free to generate more words. More lies.

She got up.

“I need to write a report,” she said. “You look tired … Sophia. Are you all right? Do you need anything?”

I shook my head. She patted my hand awkwardly, lingering at the door, as if expecting me to say something more, but I closed my eyes, faking fatigue. She left.

I got out of bed and went to the closet where I had hidden the piece of paper I had scribbled on after I woke up. Low-tech is guaranteed to be unique and irreplaceable. Not like computer files that can be infinitely copied, breeding more words in the world overflowing with language.

I had not lied to Stella about my being a mutant. This was my own best guess. But I had shaded the truth a little. I wondered whether she would figure it out herself.

If the aliens had seeded our brains with the Chomsky module, it must have been for a reason. They had wanted to communicate with us, or rather, with the creatures we would become. Could they foresee our spectacular technological progress? Had they planned on reaping the fruit of their little scheme millennia in advance? Why not? Who knew how long-lived they were?

Locking a bunch of clever primates in the prison-house of language and letting them play with this new toy until they discover nuclear fission, quantum computing, self-replicating neural nets. And then coming back to collect the inmates’ output.

But whatever the original language programmed into the Chomsky module, it has branched and evolved into endless linguistic families, tongues, and dialects. The world has become a babbling cauldron of mutual incomprehension.

In such a world, one needs a translator.

A prison-guard to deliver orders to the inmates. A traitor.

I looked again at the wrinkled piece of paper—actually, an old receipt—on which I had scribbled the message I had received in the shared dream of the experimental subjects. The rocks I had dug up on the beach—those were words, the original ur-words of our creators speaking to us from outside the prison-house they had locked us in.

I tore the piece into two, and then again and again, until nothing remained but a handful of illegible fragments.

  • Elana Gomel

    Elana Gomel is an Associate Professor at the Department of English and American Studies at Tel-Aviv University. She is the author of six nonfiction books and numerous articles on subjects such as narrative theory, posthumanism, science fiction, Dickens, and Victorian culture. Her latest books are Narrative Space and Time: Representing Impossible Topologies in Literature (Routledge 2014) and Science Fiction, Alien Encounters, and the Ethics of Posthumanism: Beyond the Golden Rule (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2014). As a fiction writer, she has published more than 40 fantasy and science fiction stories in The Singularity, New Realms, Mythic, and many other magazines; and in several anthologies, including People of the Book, Zion’s Fiction, and The Apex Book of World SF: Volume 4. Her fantasy novel A Tale of Three Cities came out in 2013 and her novella Dreaming the Dark in 2017. Her latest novel The Hungry Ones was published by Guardbridge Books in 2018.

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