by Joel Page
To escape I am trying to forget English. This is difficult for a grown man, but I have certain advantages. First, I am in solitary confinement, which means that people rarely speak English at me, so I am not prompted to it. Second, I am fluent in ALT-9, which is comprised entirely of words pronounced and spelled exactly like words in English. So when I think of a word that I used to know in English, there is something to take its place. There is another node in the brain for the sound to go to.
I’m lucky. The man in the cell catty-corner to mine delivered the English-ALT-9 dictionary to me before – and I mean just before — the CO’s relocated him and declared the dictionaries contraband. In his case, the dictionary was legitimate evidence, so there wasn’t much question about his right to it. But then he started selling them, and the inmates started shenanigans with them (asking for the keys to their cells in ALT-9 and whatnot) so they decided they were a security problem.
Right after I went in, processing power exploded in the wake of the quantum computing revolution. So some wise guy decided to make new languages by scrambling an edition of Webster’s New International, pairing words with the definitions of other words at random. Each time he did this (or had his program do it), he imagined then that he’d created a foreign language dictionary, which provided English definitions for the words of a new language – it’s just that all the words in the new language were spelled and pronounced exactly like English words. Then he kept making dictionaries until he’d made every possible one.
So then according to the guy in the catty-corner cell, the wise guy stole some examples of naturally occurring English conversations from unsecured phones. He made transcripts of the intercepted conversations and had his program translate them into English, as if all the conversations had actually been spoken in each of the several quintillion new languages defined by his new dictionaries. Then he took the transformed conversations and fed them to AI bots, which evaluated each of them for its plausibility as an English conversation. Finally, human readers agreed that the ninth candidate language identified by the bots made sense of both the transcripts that had been fed to the bots and new spontaneously occurring conversations. The first eight candidates (languages “ALT-1” thru “ALT-8”) made sense of the pre-existing conversations, but failed to make sense of any newly recorded material, leading the wise guy to conclude that their ability to make sensible conversations out of the originally recorded material was just coincidence. But the dictionary defining the ninth candidate language (ALT-9) consistently made sense of new, naturally occurring speech. And so he concluded that everyone is always speaking both English and ALT-9, all the time.
Like I say, the catty-corner man had the dictionaries because they were evidence in his case. Legit evidence. Crucial evidence, because the cops had used ALT-9 to convict him. They asked him questions in ALT-9 without giving Miranda warnings and he responded to the English meaning of the words in their questions. Well, turns out he’s also answering in ALT-9 (because everyone always is) and in ALT-9 his answers were incriminating – they confessed to his presence at the known crime scene. They ask him whether some species of rabbit can change their sex, and he thinks they’re asking about the genitals of rabbits, which they are in English, but in ALT-9, the question means “where were you the night the tall man was shot?” And he answers, “what kind of lunatic cop mind game is this?” But in ALT-9 that means “on the rooftop near the docks,” which answer they use against him at trial, because the victim got shot on a rooftop near the docks.
So he moves to suppress the confession (the ALT-9 meaning of the answer), because the cops didn’t Mirandize him. But he loses because the court says if he isn’t thinking in ALT-9, the ALT-9 meanings of the words he spoke aren’t his words. Rather, they’re the words of another being that speaks and thinks in ALT-9, but co-occupies his brain and body. Personhood is thought, the court says, and thought is language, so different language, different person. And you can’t complain that a witness besides yourself wasn’t given Miranda warnings before they snitched you out.
So then his lawyers say, “well, it’s not fair to send the ALT-9 being to prison for something the catty-corner man did.” But the court doesn’t like that either. It says, “well, the ALT-9 being isn’t going to prison because no one is talking to him like a prisoner.” It says, “we don’t know what will be said to cause him to stay in the building we call a ‘prison’ but it probably isn’t ‘you have to stay here as punishment for a crime.’” Like maybe the ALT-9 being is choosing to be in the prison-building.
And that gets me thinking: maybe if I learn ALT-9 and forget English by the time I’m out of solitary, I won’t be in prison anymore. I’ll hear or think whatever words are making the ALT-9 beings stay in the building. But maybe I’ll be choosing to stay here, like they are. Like a monk.
So I spend a long time with it. For hours I stare at objects, such objects as I can find in the cell, and repeat aloud their ALT-9 meaning, desperately trying to drive out their English meanings. I stare at the sink and say the ALT-9 word for sink. I stare at the wall and say the ALT-9 word for wall. I jump and say the ALT-9 meaning for jump. And so forth.
It’s hard – even as my English wanes, there are things I know how to say in English that I don’t know how to say in ALT-9.* And the mind reaches for language in silence like a hand reaches for a lifesaver in the ocean. But it can be done; I believe it can be done. I’ve seen guys come out of solitary knowing fewer words than they knew going in, and they weren’t even replacing the words they forgot. When I am tempted to think in English, I repeat aloud the ALT-9 word for “freedom,” drawing that freedom to myself as I do, the freedom of confinement chosen.
There’s another possibility, of course. Maybe the court was right and people who think and talk in ALT-9 are just completely different people than people who talk and think in English, even if they happen to occupy the same bodies and brains. In that case, forgetting English might kill me.
Maybe. But maybe that’s the point. I don’t like it here.
Either way, though, I have to wonder who’ll be speaking and thinking in English once I’ve forgotten it. Someone has to be if I’m off speaking and thinking in ALT-9, since the existence of an ALT-9 speaker implies the existence of an English speaker. I guess I could go into a coma, or my body will die, because the universe does not permit a divergence between English and ALT-9. The Word is an atom, and it shall not be split.
Or maybe when I’ve passed to ALT-9 another poor English speaker will be born behind me to serve the rest of my sentence. Sorry, pal.
* These English words are a last indulgence. I fear I may not be able to say them in ALT-9, and wish to say them in English while I still can say them in something.
Joel Page is a public defender in Dallas, where he writes appeals for federal prisoners. His fiction has appeared in The Fabulist, Fleas on the Dog. Thimble, and is forthcoming in Speculative City.