Translated from the German by T.R.
There are languages, barely human languages, such as English, with little or no inflection of the verb. A mere –s marks the form attached to he, she and it, while all the rest remains indistinguishable from the infinitive, marked for its part by an impertinent to. But what makes our tongues human, pulls them down from the untouchable infinitive clouds, and up from the sounds of the beasts and waters and winds, are nothing other than the suffixes we adjoin to our verbs to indicate what it is, precisely, they are meant to do. The rest is the onomatopoeia of nature and the potentiality of the unconjugated. So baa is just a sound a sheep makes, but when we say that Agnus balat, that the sheep baas, we are saying something precise about the world and its creatures. A chicken just clucks, but Pullus pipit tells us what the chicken does. And likewise:
Awooo becomes Lupus ulul-at.
Coo-coo “ Cuculus cucul-at
Hissss “ Serpens sibil-at
Quack “ Rana coax-at
Caw-caw “ Cornix cornic-atur.
For those of you untouched by the gift of Latinity, this is as much as to say that the wolf howls, the cuckoo coos, the snake hisses, the frog croaks, and the crow caws. But do you understand what I am saying? Everything generates sounds. What makes the sounds human, and gives them meaning, are their conjugated forms: they become finite, like us, they float in and out of existence.
I know this because my first language was the language of the animals. Or rather, I was their vessel. Their sounds echoed in me, and came out half-human, modulated by a human tongue, but arising from somewhere else, somewhere not at all human. The calao bird with its yellow helmet was my first interlocutor. It taught me not just its own sounds, but how to channel all sounds, how to become a vessel of the dog-faced ape, of the man-faced ape, of the crocodile (who some say has no sound of his own!) and of the elephant.
From these natural-historical bearings you may already have adduced that I am not, as they say, from around here. I am what they call a Mooress, but only because their language is inexact: the Mauri are those of the former Roman colony of Mauritania, whereas I come from parts considerably further South. After the Romans let down their guard and effectively invited the thorough drubbing and sacking that came to them from the North and East, in no small part from the Germanic barbarians among whose descendants I live today, and in whose tongue I now write (if only for the convenience of my readers): after all this, I say, there was a new prophecy in the desert, followed by a great conquest of Arabia, of Asia, of Africa, of Spain, and in time all of these people, both conquerors and conquered, came to be called Moors. But I am no more a Mahomedan than I am a Mauritanian. If you must know I am a baptized Mooress, in the Dutch Reformed Church, and I was born in the land known by Europeans as Guinea. Now Guinea signifies many things, among them coins, apes, waterfowl, and several regions of the Old and New Worlds. It derives from a Touareg word for the ‘land of the Black people’, and just like nearly everything Europeans say about that land, it is, as the French put it, à côté de la plaque. It misses its target.
But enough about words. I am Charlotte Wilhelmina Afra, free Moorish woman of the city of Halle on the Saale in Saxony-Anhalt, baptized in the Dutch Reformed Church in Amsterdam in the Year of our Lord 1706.
To be continued...