My former husband is a cinematographer and was on a shoot in a penthouse that displayed large quantities of ancient Roman art; galleries' worth of marble sculptures were all over the place. At one point he was in a room where a maid was dusting a lone life-size statue of someone, a god or an emperor, he didn't know, but he took some shots of it. The owner of the premises entered and told him he had to erase the footage because she didn't have what she called publication rights for this sculpture in this room. The billionairess got down on her hands and knees and looked through the viewfinder to be absolutely sure he'd erased all images of the statue. He believed publication rights was a meaningless phrase, the statue had most likely been acquired illegally, and therefore must not be photographed under any circumstances, that was what she was really saying. I asked if he'd managed to save any images of it, but no, the billionairess, though not familiar with the camera, had, in what must have been scarcely revealed panic and anxiety, exercised the thoroughness of a pro. But doesn't the photographer own the images, I asked? I imagined armed guards positioned at the mirrored elevators. None of the crew could leave until the camera was handed over. That isn't exactly what happened, but you could tell, he said, she meant business.
The Repository Of Extinct and Dead Languages was easy to find, hidden in plain sight off an expressway that linked boroughs of a major city. It was housed in the offices of a defunct power station perched on the edge of a polluted canal, slated for a superfund clean-up that never happened. The plan had been to decontaminate the top ninety percent of the canal, then cap the densely poisonous layer at the very bottom, but there was no guarantee that leaden asbestos, coal tar, the radioactive and gonorrheaic, and other bacteria of spectacular toxicity could actually be contained by a cap made of what? No material known to man could keep all of the substances and organisms out of commission forever, so the project was eventually dropped. Sooner or later, everything leaks or disintegrates. Also, there was a white biofilm coating the bottom believed to have potential curative powers, and investigations of it were ongoing. The Repository overlooked an elbow of the canal and had two employees. The man who ran the place was never assigned a title, so he couldn't call himself a director, sort of a curator with little oversight. He was monolingual. The other employee was a bilingual armed guard. The Repository was open to scholars, school groups, and curious individuals by appointment only. When there were no visitors, queries to be answered, maintenance chores to be completed, the curator/custodian would drink coffee and look out the window. If the guard was elsewhere in the building, he would watch porn in a language he didn't understand, then delete it from his history. He sometimes called the Repository a language zoo of the endangered, but he baulked at the idea of a linguistic mortuary. Not dead yet, he would say, even though that was part of the Repository's mandate, to house and archive the dead. He felt you shouldn't eliminate the idea of hope. Sometimes languages were only sleeping, and there were examples of those that had arisen, zombie-like, reactivated, and flourishing, or almost so.
Besides the native dead languages of North and South America and many Pacific Islands were the unspoken—Latin, Ancient Greek—and the not totally dead but getting there—Judeo-Persian, Russo-Turkic Abaza, Ethiopian Kwama, to name just three out of thousands. These were the three he mentioned when he gave tours to school groups, pointing to a map of the world projected on a wall near the elevator, as if to say, these losses are universal, death happens everywhere.
Each language had a room containing whatever written examples existed. The room for Latin occupied the entire ground floor and also made use of digital recordings. There were others where every known text or utterance occupied so little space, languages such as Livonian and Osage, for example, that their rooms were each the size of a mid-twentieth century phone booth. Within each chamber was a listening station with headphones, if a recording of the language was known to exist. Occasionally recordings made by last speakers had been transferred from wax cylinders to tapes, and these transferred to digital files, so they could be listened to, though no one was left alive who knew exactly what the last speakers were saying, he would emphasize. It was part of his job to make sure all audio-visual equipment was clean and in running order, that WiFi connections were maintained, even though there were rooms no one ever had any interest in entering, as if the lost words and meanings died over and over again with each visitor's shrug of disinterest.
There was an online system for borrowing files. No written record could be checked out of the facility; in-house use only. Borrowers have included scriptwriters who might use a super-dead language as the basis for languages spoken on other planets. With no or imperfect means of translating, few in the audience are going to complain, hey those Plutonians are speaking rongorongo, a language associated with the Marshall Islands. But the curator was an optimist who believed the time wasn't far off when there would be a room or rooms for languages from somewhere in the multi-verse.
Space was an issue at the Repository. Languages preserved on paper, stone, clay, metal, bark canoes, etched into refrigerators, took up varying degrees of space. Lucky were those whose relics were fire resistant (the burned libraries of Alexandria, Sarajevo, and Rio de Janeiro come to mind), a feature that has and will continue to save them, however inscrutable the lines of text have become. Sometimes pictures or accompanying illustrations help out, but even images are subject to interpretation. All documents are pre-Gutenberg and solo objects, incunabula, of immeasurable value. A codex plus table and chair took up a room the size of a horse trailer because the book, somewhat outsize, contained a plethora of images. Conquistadors dispatched all speakers and readers and burned all their books, but this one somehow survived. Without the precision of written words whose meanings are known, it's impossible to interpret with any degree of accuracy the meaning of what looks like an act of violence one human visits upon another. Or knife and incision depicted could be an early form of surgery. This isn't so farfetched. Evidence of contemporaneous ophthalmic surgeries exist in Mesopotamia, to name just one case.
The curator struggled with the definition of an extinct or close to it language. An extinct language had no more living speakers, that was the most obvious line to draw, he explained to the guard on her first day. What about the dead ones, she asked? A dead language has no community to support it, so can no longer be said to be a native language of a specific geography or a group in exile. It could exist in written form only. It helps a language to have a written form when all speakers die out, though this is no guarantee that disuse and demise isn't in the cards, ultimately. Endangered languages that were close to death and/or extinction had a place on an upper floor, eventually and quickly in some cases (fourteen languages go extinct every day), they would be moved to a lower floor. In the long history of the Repository there were languages that experienced a revival and had been booted out. Hebrew had once had a home in the Repository, but it was expelled, and Yiddish, too, was on its way out of the facility, which would free up a considerable amount of space.
Every so often he would get a petition from a zoologist claiming dolphins, chimps, crows all had languages. Convincing footage and recordings would be included that he enjoyed watching, calling the guard over to join him. Prairie dog calls contained information about predators, bees danced to signal location of food sources, mating dances of flamingos that involved a lot of swiveling. Rather than emphasize that the Repository was for human languages only, he would politely request the petitioners get back to him when those species were themselves going extinct. The guard told him he'd opened a can of worms with that response and had underestimated the chances of exactly that happening.
The Repository was publicly funded, and this was an issue. Expulsion from the larger ecosystem of languages, it was argued, was just too damn bad, but not a real lives lost kind of tragedy, and in no way worthy of expensive preservation. Sorry, you're out, you didn't survive, no reason to keep life support plugged in. Citing Darwin, calling the preservationists Babelists, the Repository's critics were capable of causing trouble, but the curator considered these protestors to be nothing better than survivalist kooks. Opponents of the tough shit faction accused them of being promoters of colonialist aggressor languages, so eager to declare victory, to snigger at the refurbished power station and its hardworking employees. Cut off state funding, a drain on tax payer resources, was the response, but the dead languages clamored, you owe us this home, at least. The lone curator wants to keep his job, so he sends out mass email alerts asking for donations. The guard suggested an online funding campaign, telling him she'd help him with the filming. A close up, she said, of an iron blade etched with who knows what syllabary or logograms, then pan out to the room with a shot of either one of them, headphones on, smiling, then out to the canal, photoshopping in the image of the baby mink whale that had wandered into it, you know before it died from exposure to who knows what, while it was still swimming happily, or at least what you might think happy might be for a lost marine mammal floating on poison.
Trouble began in Canal City, and it came on cats' paws at first, but then threatened the whole enterprise, poking at the boundaries of the Repository in an unexpected way, and it wasn't about unanswered solicitations for donations to keep the lights on.
At first there was only one of them, a ragged man in an Applebee's t-shirt sitting on a nearby bollard when the curator and the guard came to open in the morning. They couldn't understand a word he was saying, just a stream of sound with strategic pauses as if the guttural sounds were, in fact, heading towards sentences. Nordic, maybe, the curator said, but they left him and made to hurry inside to prepare for the day.
Not open yet, the guard said, and she shooed him away.
We have an old Norse room if you're interested, the curator called out as he unlocked the door, trying to be friendly, but the man only stared into the water and kept talking.
After an hour, the ragged man was joined by more people, then more still. Preconscious gibberish, babbling, the aural collages of schizophrenics, dream states, bad trip narrations, feral children—all demanded their place in the archive. This was assumed because they pointed to their mouths then pointed to the building. Sole practitioners clamored at the massive double doors of the former power station. The pounding and shouting grew deafening. Solo speakers held microphones aloft, clutched recording devices from earlier centuries, chanted into phones. One gripped a film can labeled Poto and Cabengo. The curator called the guard, but they really had no idea what to do. Out the window, the canal looked peaceful, its surface placid. The curator said, well, why not let them in, but the guard foresaw problems controlling the mob. They would be overrun by people they couldn't understand. The curator and the guard held one another tightly and retreated to one of the upper floor rooms, accessible only by stairs, and even then, hard to find, somewhere on a floor honey-combed with the remnants of the endangered.
What Are Words Worth
The box was labeled: don't open until after the war. Which war was being referred to was unknown until the string that bound it was untied, then the war was easily identified. Among the contents of an uncatalogued box, dusty and neglected, discovered in the Rare Book Room of the New York Public Library: labels for hair products, soap, packets of seeds, tea envelopes that contained no tea, operating manuals for sewing machines, radios, vacuum cleaners, pulp novels, objects so ordinary they could be hidden in plain sight. No one would look at them closely. Why bother? The customs agent, the border guard, the bored policeman opens the suitcase, nothing to see here, waves the bearer on. Had they looked closely, and maybe some of the them did (a death sentence for the courier), the police would have found that instead of tea leaves, vegetable seeds, soap, instructional guides were pages of smuggled anti-Nazi writings, created by exiles in Prague, Zurich, London, and elsewhere. Wrapped in yellowed copies of Frankfurter Zeitung, these were known as Camouflaged Books, and very few of them have survived. The print is miniscule. Many words had to be crammed into small spaces. Who collected them and how they got into the library is not known.