Linguimericks, Etc.—Book २३ SpecGram Vol CLXXIV, No 2 Contents Contingent Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know—Madalena Cruz-Ferreira

Hazards of Fieldwork Among the Hiithrobnsn

William Moore-Crusoe
Winter Academy of Language

The Hiithrobnsn live in a remote, marshy and inhospitable region of Guyana. A traditional greeting amongst them is “Mind where you walk,” wise advice, as it is vitally important to make sure that you remain on what passes for dry land locally. Stray into the mire and you risk being bitten, stung, infected or electrocuted by the various unpleasant creatures that dwell therein. The Hiithrobnsn have 27 words for “swamp”, and all of them are pejorative. They can be used as attitudinals conveying various degrees of displeasure, ranging from mild irritation to a declaration of war.

Despite this, they are a cheerful people, devoted to the pleasures of wordplay and tinkering. One of their favourite pastimes is to find ways of introducing unlikely sentences naturally into the conversation. 97.36% of the data in my forthcoming Reference Grammar of Hiithrobnsn was elicited from their attempts to give a meaning to “Colourless green ideas sleep furiously.” It is the only time in my entire career that anything written by Chomsky has proved to be the slightest use.

With regard to tinkering, they periodically obtain samples of modern technology that have been abandoned (or, depending on translation, “bequeathed”) by explorers, missionaries, and other visitors to the region. Driven by curiosity, they dismantle them, investigate their workings, and use their components to build their own eccentric and fascinating devices. Although these are clearly built more for amusement than any practical purpose, they are marvels of mechanical art.

The Hiithrobnsn’s talent for creative mechanics was of great use to me towards the end of my stay with them. One of the first problems I had faced was how to get about in the wetlands, particularly as settlements are widely dispersed. The Hiithrobnsn themselves use flat-bottomed boats, but as I am a dubious punter at best, I invested in a one-man hovercraft. This enabled me to travel with equal ease on land or water (which, without centuries of traditional knowledge, are hard to tell apart around there), and to make a rapid escape on those occasions when I accidentally used the wrong word for swamp.

However, I failed to take into account the vehicle’s prodigious fuel consumption, and one day I found myself stranded in a remote part of the swamp with neither diesel nor any means of obtaining it. The Hiithrobnsn, however, came to my rescue, and within an afternoon had converted my vehicle to run on electrical power. But from what source? Heedless of personal risk, they caught a large number of swamp-dwelling fish, whose electrical discharges they have learned to harness.

And that is why my hovercraft is full of eels.

Linguimericks, Etc.Book २३
Contingent Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t KnowMadalena Cruz-Ferreira
SpecGram Vol CLXXIV, No 2 Contents