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I spoof the attempt to concoct pre-histories from western linguistics.
You, hear me! Give this fire to that old man. Pull the black worm off the bark and give it to the mother. And no spitting in the ashes!*
“Ultraconserved words point to deep language ancestry across Eurasia” by Mark Pagel, Quentin D. Atkinson, Andreea S. Calude, and Andrew Meade, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. (April 15, 2013).
[T]he Pagel et al. paper is yet another sad example of major scientific publications accepting and publishing articles on historical linguistics without bothering to ask any competent historical linguists to review the papers in advance.
“Ultraconserved words? Really?” Sally Thomas, Language Log. May 8, 2013
The scene: A crepuscular drizzle. An old man (Oldman) and an old woman (Oldwoman) huddle, watching a younger man (Longnose) working a fire-drill with two hands, unsuccessfully. Painted with red and ashy pigments, they are all dressed in leather and furs, with stone amulets. From the shadows, a red glow approaches, eventually revealing the silhouette of a man (Flatnose), toting a fire carrier of horn. He speaks, and Longnose, startled, replies.
Longnose (Jumping up, ready for fight)
Flatnose (Ignoring the threat)
to that old man.
Flatnose (Looking over Oldman’s shoulder)
off the bark and give it to the mother.
(Longnose watches Oldman pull a fat caterpillar out of the tinder and hand it to Oldwoman, who eats it with toothless gums and laughs. She draws a bone from a pouch and gives it to Oldman, who blows through it into the igniting embers)
You scared me, cousin, I thought you were a
Flatnose (Spitting to the side, contemptuously)
(Longnose swallows. Flatnose sits on a nearby stone, satisfied with the effects of his command. He holds up his ten fingers)
This many winters: It’s time to trade wives
and sharpen our axes against the Small-ears.
who fled the ice when there was still ice,
swamp settlers now, whose hidden women mate
with rats, plot with snakes, spread their hate for laws
of fire, ashes, black worms, spit, wives.
Now, bring me your daughters.
*Phrase cobbled from Pagel et al by David Brown in “Linguists identify 15,000-year-old ‘ultraconserved words,’” May 6, 2013, Washington Post.
Phillip Bannowsky is a retired autoworker, international educator, human rights activist, and 2017 Delaware Division of the Arts Established Artist Fellow in poetry. Published works include The Milk of Human Kindness (poetry), Autoplant: a Poetic Monologue, and The Mother Earth Inn (novel). He is a contributing editor at Dreamstreets Magazine and curates Broken Turtle Booklist, which catalogues Delaware writers (brokenturtlebooks.com). Recent poems have appeared in Labor: Studies in Working Class History of the Americas, Currents, The Moise A. Khayrallah Center for Lebanese Diaspora Studies, The Broadkill Review, Dreamstreets, Bad Hombres and Nasty Women (anthology, Raging Press 2017), armarolla, Meat for Tea: the Valley Review, and Psychedelic Press Journal. He teaches the Poetry of Empowerment at the University of Delaware.
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