Issib wasn’t thrilled to see him. I’m busy and don’t need interruptions.” “This is the household library,” said Nafai. “This is where we always come to do research.” “See? You’re interrupting already.” “Look, I didn’t say anything, I just came in here, and you started picking at me the second I walked in the door.” “I was hoping you’d walk back out.” “I can’t. Mother sent me here.” Nafai walked over behind Issib, who was floating comfortably in the air in front of his computer display. It was layered thirty pages deep, but each page had only a few words on it, so he could see almost everything at once. Like a game of solitaire, in which Issib was simply moving fragments from place to place. The fragments were all words in weird languages. The ones Nafai recognized were very old. “What language is that?” Nafai asked pointing, to one. Issib signed. “I’m so glad you’re not interrupting me.” “What is it, some ancient form of Vijati?” “Very good. It’s Slucajan, which came from Obilazati, the original form of Vijati. It’s dead now.” “I read Vijati, you know.” “I don’t.” “Oh, so you’re specializing in ancient, obscure languages that nobody speaks anymore, including you?” “I’m not learning these languages, I’m researching lost words.” “If the whole language is dead, then all the words are lost.” “Words that used to have meanings, but that died out or survived only in idiomatic expressions. Like ‘dancing bear.’ What’s a bear, do you know?” “I don’t know. I always thought it was some kind of graceful bird.” “Wrong. It’s an ancient mammal. Known only on Earth, I think, and not brought here. Or it died out soon. It was bigger than a man, very powerful. A predator.” “And it danced?” “The expression used to mean something absurdly clumsy. Like a dog walking on its hind legs.” “And now it means the opposite. That’s weird. How could it change?” “Because there aren’t any bears. THe meaning used to be obvious, because everybody knew a bear and how clumsy it would look, dancing. But when the bears were gone, the meaning could go anywhere. Now we use it for a person who’s extremely deft in getting out of an embarrassing social situation. It’s the only case that we use the word bear anymore. And you see a lot of people misspelling it, too.” “Great stuff. You doing a linguistics project?” “No.” “What’s this for, then?” “Me.” “Just collection old idioms?” “Lost words.” “Like bear? The word isn’t lost, Issya. It’s the bears that are gone.” “Very good, Nyef. You get full credit for the assignment. Go away now.


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