The Cat in the Middle of the Road

The cat was an orange tabby standing in the middle of the country road that I use as a shortcut on my morning commute into work. It looked like a kitten. I took my foot off the gas and mentally told the kitten to get out of the way. It did, quickly pacing off to the right – cats never run under circumstances like that – and stopping along the side of the road.

As I passed it, I saw that it wasn’t a kitten. But it wasn’t an adult cat, either. It was the equivalent of that awkward teenage stage, where the limbs grow first and give a lanky appearance while the rest of the body tries to catch up.

I caught myself thinking, “Not a kitten. Not a cat. In between. A teen cat?” And realized there wasn’t a word to describe that age for cats.

There are words to describe the ages of a chicken – chick (the cute fluffy stage), pullet (less than a year), hen (a year old), biddy (the same, but my dad sometimes used this to describe an older, meddlesome woman, so it’s associated in my mind with an older hen). Pigs have a lot of age descriptors, too. Most utility or farm animals seem to, out of necessity.

Nothing for cats and dogs that I know of.

And I got to thinking, in Spanish you can add endings. Pajaro is bird, and if you make it pajarito, you’re talking about a little bird. Still nothing for that in-between age that the cat in the road exemplified.

So then I thought, there should be a language where all of that stuff is covered. Like Greek and its many words for the word love (you don’t love your sibs in the same way that you love your spouse, and there’s that passage in the Bible that people struggle with where Jesus kept asking Peter “Do you love me?”, where the actual exchange was “Do you love me unconditionally?” – “Lord, you know I love you like a brother.”).

Then I decided that separate words like chick, pullet, hen and biddy wasn’t going to cut it in this theoretical language. It needed to be simple and elegant, like Esperanto allegedly was/is. So I proposed that this language would be made up of roots and endings, with the endings key as descriptors, much like the gender endings in Romantic languages, like the -ito in Spanish, only more developed. This might work in the following way, using the English word cat as an example (although in my theoretical language, it would be a different word, of course)

Cat – core word for the animal

Cata – designator for a young animal

Catit – designator for a transitional age, between child and adult

Catet – designator for mature animal

Catea – designator for aged, could also imply wisdom

(It also occurs to me at this moment of writing that this could also be implemented in different ways to designate degrees of something – now using a color here as an example, with the same endings I pulled out of the air for the example above for consistency’s sake:

Reda – a blush, just a hint of

Redit – pink

Redet – traditional red

Redea – maroon

anyway, you get the idea.)

Anyway, in the Faust universe of writing, this qualifies not so much as an idea as a notion. There are questions to be answered here. Who speaks the language? How did it evolve? What is their culture? Why are they here? Are they aliens, or the product of a fragmented future society? What gives? What’s it all about, Alfie?

There is some precedent for creating languages in novels. David Brin hinted at the dolphin language and culture in Startide Rising, but I don’t think that aspect was fully realized (hey, it was an adventure novel – he might have had more and cut it). Russell Hoban’s Ridley Walker is written in a barely-literate version of English spoken in a world where a nuclear holocaust is generations in the past. Anthony Burgess invented Nadsat, a form of teen slang, for A Clockwork Orange to show both the isolation between generations, and, in a creepy move, to show a subversive element at play in the culture of future Britain (many of Nadsat’s words come from Russian, including “Nadsat” itself). And I played with language a little in The Company Man with Pidgin Spanish (also called Half Spanish and Bastard Spanish) to show the influence of a burgeoning Latin population in a future America – a corrupt version of Spanish that was butchered into existence by a generation of non-speakers trying to communicate with their neighbors.

Usually these languages – when they’re successful in a novel – show or symbolize some kind of isolation. Between generations (and political ideologies on a deeper level) with Burgess, and between survival and knowledge with Hoban. Their languages exist for a reason, not because one morning Anthony Burgess woke up and said, “Hey, I’m going to make up a language and use it in a book!”

There have been other attempts to use fictional languages in books that have been less successful. You can get away with them more in Fantasy and SF because there’s the excuse that there’s a culture you’re conveying with the language. Most of the time they’re just a gimmick, which is why a lot of times they don’t ring true. That’s why I usually avoid any book if I see that it has a glossary in the back.

(Yes, I know – there was a glossary in the back of editions of A Clockwork Orange published in the 1970’s. But Burgess didn’t put it there, the publisher did. For that matter, his U.S. publisher at the time also left out the last chapter so the book ended on a dark note – “I was cured, all right” – instead of ending with Alex realizing that this life he was leading was futile and walking away from his life of violent crime. This has since been remedied in later editions of the U.S. version.)

Anyway, there’s a new notion to go on the back burner. I’ve already decided that, if I use it in a book, it will be called Citrl (pronounced almost like “citrus,” only with an “L” instead of the final “S”) – for Cat In The Road Language. Interviewers will ask me now I came up with the name, and I’ll just smile and shrug. But you, my faithful readers, you all are privy to this secret.

Besides, it’s easier than saying “It was inspired when I saw a cat in the road.”

See, we writers, we just can’t help ourselves.

NP – Jandek shuffle play – “A Real Number


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