Iowa Writes

A Confusion of Tongues

        Six thousand years ago a people lived where steppe met forest.  We do not know what they called themselves, but we know some of their language because it became so many of ours.  It was lost, but we can learn it if we remake it, which we do by finding the roots enough of ours share.
        From their language we know that they kept cattle, horses, and dogs.  They planted with plows and killed with axes. They did not write but they used clichés.  They had words for heavy snow.
        If we want to find wisdom in their words, there is first much to overcome.  Their word for white became ours for black.  Their word for peace would sound to us like bondage.  If one of their women announced that she would soon give birth to a child, a Greek could hear and think she planned to become one.  They had a word for the sky that was just like what the Vedics used for god and what the Persians named the devil.  We have forgotten their word for sleep, but it was close to what we once used for dreaming.
        When one of their children was taken by a steppe wolf (the beast from whose name we take woe) they would understand why their word for life is ours for quickness, but not why their screaming is the root of our laughter.  They used their word for together as the number one, but it survives to Slavs as the word for alone.  Their word for weeping is in ours for an echo; we hear their sorrow in sickness; the sound of their crying is part of our name for the nightingale.
        They used one word to both mourn and remember.  We have a word of theirs we use for avenge, but to them it was simply to teach.  When they said death they meant only a death, though we would broaden it and mean mortality.  Their word for love became our venerate, win, and wish, but also our venom.  Our word for waking up is theirs departing.  When they said they were going beyond we would hear that they were going far, but others would hear and know they were going forward.  What we think was their name for god might just have been their way of calling a sunbeam.
        They made the same sound as us when they stubbed a toe.

About Iowa Writes

Since 2006, Iowa Writes has featured the work of Iowa-identified writers (whether they have Iowa roots or live here now) and work published by Iowa journals and publishers on The Daily Palette. Iowa Writes features poetry, fiction, or nonfiction twice a week on the Palette.

In November of 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Iowa City, Iowa, the world's third City of Literature, making the community part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.

Iowa City has joined Edinburgh, Scotland and Melbourne, Australia as UNESCO Cities of Literature.

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Ethan Madore is a second-year graduate student in the University of Iowa's Nonfiction Writing program.

This page was first displayed
on July 31, 2015

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