The Language Jean
I am moved to tears to be able to report a finding, whose serendipity and repercussions can only compare to those of Professor I. Jones’s inspirational discovery three years ago, duly featured in Speculative Grammarian (Davis et al. 2006).
Since then, attempting to replicate the tenure and research grants that his breakthrough must have earned him post-hoc, I have been trawling, not Turkey, because turkeys enjoy bad press in the limelight I am seeking, but further afield in Ürümqi. There are two reasons for this. First, I have been co-inspired by Barber’s (1999) no less jaw-dropping discovery, that alien mummies dressed in tartan populate Tarim grounds. Her evidence about globalisation of cultural material avant-la-lettre was yesterday complemented by Melchior et al.’s (2008) discovery of globalised biological material, namely, genetically Arabian DNA contained in ex-inhabitants of Bøgebjerggård, Denmark. And second, Ürümqi has the advantage of being unpronounceable,1 and so comes ready-packaged with a boosted aura of exoticism on the glamour scale.
Like Professor Jones, I was looking for everyday household artefacts, linguistic or otherwise, among mummies. Daddies are in scarce supply for evidence of linguistically well-preserved items, because they are language busters rather than keepers (Foley 1997) and because they prefer things on the go rather than sitting prettily. This is the case both ontogenetically (Connellan et al. 2000) and phylogenetically (Lonsdorf et al. 2004). Like Elizabeth W. Barber, I was looking for clothing specimens, my livelihood being their relevance to humankind’s verbal expression faculty (Lévi-Sauce 2007 is a recent example). As said, tenure and grants have so far eluded me.
Being in need of some personal hygiene management at my site quarters, I summoned Pär, who is my seasoned archaeological assistant, and indispensable because he digs holes (in both senses of the word2). Following the techniques he himself developed and detailed in De Profundiis (1937), he dug deep as usual, in fact so deep that an unmistakable odour emanating from the crater told us we had struck textile. Pär was ecstatic, as he is currently studying this and other global pongs (Fumis De Profundiis,3 ongoing), and I was moved to tears. Pär had uncovered a piece of clothing, exquisitely intact, which had lain undisturbed for millennia before the havoc of bone, skin, jewellery and pottery that Pär’s pneumatic hammers wreaked under my tent finally prised it loose.
The garment was meant to be worn around the legs. It showed a binary set of switch-like, round knobs, which were conveniently positioned for travellers’ comfort and apparently designed to switch settings on the fly. My other assistant, Snjezana, despite the tears filling her own eyes, suddenly remembered having seen a similar garment elsewhere in the Tarim basin, back when Pär still lacked a middle initial. She had called it ‘JEAN’, short for the name of the publication which accepted her paper on this finding (Antonić, to appear). Snjezana’s best guess was that the switches might serve to make the garment either hold, concealing the body of the wearer and thereby guaranteeing isolation from (degraded) environmental input, or drop, exposing body, and thereby mind, to the risk of brain-damage from (upgraded) contamination. Perhaps unsurprisingly (see references above), her analysis explains why all the garmented female mummy parts that we salvaged from among the debris were in hold position, and all the male ones in drop.
But the truly momentous discovery was yet to come. X-ray diffraction photography of the fabric around the switches unveiled a mind/brain-boggling marvel: defining every single micro-fibre in each jean, three letter-like symbols correlate in an unquestionably ordered way. A central, ring-like ‘letter’ seems to function as a pivot, if I may borrow Braine’s (1963) term as a loose metaphor. The two other ‘letters’ hook on to this circle from opposite sides, alternating with their own mirror-image. Below is a very, very rough, very, very preliminary sketch which illustrates the delicate structure.
The similarity with the structure of human DNA is striking and cannot therefore be coincidental. Carroll et al. (2008: 60) besides established that switches are a feature of animal DNA: “The staggering diversity in [animal] physical forms springs from switches in the DNA” (emphasis added). Snjezana burst into tears and howled that she just hated not being the first one to have found switch-endowed DNA-like structures similar to my jean’s in her jean, and that she would one day prove to me and the world that her jean has more and prettier-looking letters than my jean (Antonić, personal communication), which adds to the avalanche of empirical evidence for bio-molecular material in a pair of jeans. I found, however, no support for Snjezana’s other claim, that the visual quality of the micro-fibres in her jean is likely to be enhanced after treatment with finely shredded lemon zest.
The existence of a self-replicating structure featuring DNA-like properties in an object which is clearly a cultural artefact shows beyond reasonable doubt that the transmutation can only have occurred one-way, in one way: from language to jean, through repeated, consistent and sustained higher-order cooperation among individuals, the kind of cooperation which only sophisticated symbolic systems can mediate. The inevitable conclusion is that the use of language, the prime symbolic system available to humankind, predates the language jean.
I now eagerly await tenure, grants and fanfare.
1 Not least because aliens also spell it Ürümchi. For another example of tongue-twisting glamour, see the name of my institution.
2 The word digs, of course.
3 Pär’s digging efforts with Melchior et al.’s (yesterday) team remained shamelessly unacknowledged, either because his many years have pretty much made him blend nicely into the mummified background of his working places or, more probably, because he is Swedish. Pär thus decided to renounce his Scandinavian allegiance and globalise his name. He acquired a middle name, in tribute to American habits, after a fully rewarding digging spree among Mississippian artefacts in Angel Phase.
• Antonić, S. (to appear). The Jean Antonić: A revolutionary nomadic artefact. Journal of Eugenic Arbitration among Nomads 1(1).
• Barber, E.W. (1999). The Mummies of Ürümchi. London, Pan Books.
• Braine, M.D.S. (1963). The ontogeny of English phrase structure: The first phase. Language 39(1): 1-13.
• Carroll, S.B., B. Prud’homme and N. Gompel (2008). Regulating evolution. Scientific American, May 2008, 298(5): 60-68.
• Connellan, J., S. Baron-Cohen, S. Wheelwright, A. Batki and J. Ahluwalia (2000). Sex differences in human neonatal social perception. Infant Behavior and Development 23(1): 113-118.
• Davis, R., with Marc P. Parameter and Mini M. List, reporters (2006), Language Acquisition Device Found, Speculative Grammarian, CLI (2).
• De Profundiis, P. (1937), Målet: Hålet [The Goal: the Hole]. Unpublishable doctoral dissertation, Uppsala University.
• Foley, W.A. (1997). Anthropological Linguistics: An Introduction. Blackwell.
• Fumis De Profundiis, P. (ongoing). Methane: smells like a Dane.
• Lévi-Sauce, M. (2007). ‘Oh mah gawd, like, ya gonna wear that??!’ Cosmopolitan Review, Summer issue: 19-23.
• Lonsdorf, E.V., L.E. Eberly and A.E. Pusey (2004). Sex differences in learning in chimpanzees. Nature 428(6984): 715-716.
• Melchior, L., M.T.P. Gilbert, T. Kivisild, N. Lynnerup and J. Dissing (2008). Rare mtDNA haplogroups and genetic differences in rich and poor Danish Iron-Age villages. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 135(2): 206-215.