2017, books, dogs, language, San Francisco

Why, 25 Years After Its Invention, My Gibberish Childhood Language Doesn’t Feel So Silly Anymore

When I was five, I invented a gibberish language. It was only spoken, with few rules. Just lots of sonority—a melange of short vowels and palatal and bilabial consonants (“Jabashow oum abishish?”). The language was less about communicating messages, and more about communicating emotions. I never spoke the language as myself, but as my alter ego. I assigned characters to my parents and brother (my brother’s character was named Starlings), and insisted that whenever one person prompted it, everyone else spoke the language in character. And I was not the only one to prompt our gibberish-speak. The lengths my parents went not to stifle my creativity was tremendous.

Though I can’t pinpoint the exact date, my language, much like the Ethiopian Mesmes or Oklahoman Osage, went extinct.

Puppet Pepper

Shortly after the extinction of my language, my childhood dog Pepper was born and brought into our home. It only took a few months before my family and I were speaking for her—and through her. We gave her a high-pitched lispy voice and whenever we shared “her” thoughts, it was in this tone. Really, they were our own thoughts and emotions. My gibberish language had been excavated and revived as Pepper’s voice.

Though they (literally) sounded silly, the gibberish language and my dog’s voice were essential communication tools in my family. Being laughably poor at communicating our emotions, the silliness gave us each an approachable vehicle to do so. It was through Pepper’s voice, for example, that my dad told me that Pepper (really he) would miss me when I went to college—and through Pepper’s voice that I responded.

On Monday night, I attended Eileen Myles’ book reading for their new, Afterglow (a dog memoir). The narration leaps between their late dog Rosie’s and their point of view. One of the readings was from a chapter in which Rosie is a guest at a puppet talk show. The surrealness of the setting was entertaining, as was Eileen’s gestural reading of it (including their performance of Rosie moving her butt into her chair and getting comfortable).

Eileen Myles at City Lights Bookstore

One puppet, Oscar, interviews Rosie, and both commiserate about their plight of dealing with humans. Oscar describes the discomfort of a human hand entering him and forcing him to say what he wouldn’t otherwise, words that often are at odds with his beliefs. Humans are always speaking and deciding for dogs, too. Oscar goes on to criticize humans for their obsession with self-importance. The puppets have come to Rosie because they believe that puppets and dogs must band together to outnumber humans. 

Through the Candide-esque satire of this scene, Myles delivers their powerful critique on modern society.

Taking questions from the audience after the reading, Myles compared this work with their previous ones—poems and personal memoirs. “This book actually has substance,” they half-jested. “Previous ones were just about my life. So when people reviewed those works, they eventually turned into criticisms of me and my life. But this one is a dog’s point of view. Rosie’s. Now critiques are actually about the book and the writing.” The silliness of this dog memoir effectively delivers a serious message in a way unlike any of their previous works.

Young Linguist, L; Starlings, R.

Whether in the form of a gibberish language or fantasy, embracing silliness suddenly seems like an effective vehicle for earnestness. And as I reflect on it, I’ve recently observed it succeeding around me—a coworker wearing a glittery bug antenna headband when it’s time for the team to focus; a friend partially hiding her face behind a ludicrous monkey doll while describing a new routine in her current battle with depression.

There is a lot of serious stuff happening in the world, and likely in your personal and professional life as well. It can be all-consuming. Maybe the puppets are right. Maybe we can occasionally loosen up, while still effectively communicating our platforms. In the right moments, consider finding your way to buoy the heaviness. In doing so, you might find that you can get away with a lot less hand-waving.

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