There are no adverbs in Xoi. In their place, the lexicon permutates a series of agglutinative super-verbs. Many of these super-verbs are in common use, and the creation of new lexical items is no rare feat. Children with only a few years of speech do so. These super-verbs give the language frighteningly precise narrative. Their oral histories will always be pristine.
Xoi speakers live on an Indian Ocean island the size of Lake Rotorua. It looks like a pebble flung too far west, lost from Aotearoa. Discovered around the turn of the millennium, it has since been trending in linguistics as a potential isolate – a language with no genetic relation to any other language, like Korean, or Basque. Xoi would be unique for its double isolation: linguistic and geographical.
The climate here is a warm oceanic, sitting just below the tropic of Capricorn. An impossible landscape of carex-grass meadows flourishes further inland. The dusk-red bundles are interspersed with waist-high bushes of endemic flowers called /sɐɲot̚/. Their variated purple and grey petals tesselate in a pattern of three five eight, diameters the size of my palm. Their leaves are few and weak. The flowering stems have dead, slimy leaves. I pick some to place by my bedside every week, because as they die they release a tea-like fragrance that makes my temporary home smell like a hotel.
My advisers often reply to my elementary Xoi using the tense marker /-ɦæ/ as a sentence en-clitic. I’ve yet to figure out what it means, because when they speak among themselves, I can’t make out any usage of en-clitics. I’ve heard /no-/ and /ru-/, but both pro-clitics. My hypothesis is that they are two in a larger, freely distributed group of tense markers. The only difference I can make out so far is that one seems to be used when going somewhere. Perhaps /ɦæ-/ is another aspect marker, maybe a different class of tense marker? I note it down as whatever makes sense in the sentence. Xaniu, my primary adviser and host, explains her language in a roundabout way, keeping secrets from me.
The only town here looks post-apocalyptic. The buildings are eerily developed, and look as if they had at one point been salvaged. Wood and glass are held together by strange adhesives, and plastic sheeting lines many of the walls. We are halfway between the meadows and the shore. It’s about a 30 minute walk each way. A clear stream, artificial according to Xaniu, runs through the centre of the town. The water comes from a lake in the meadows, of some significance to the islanders. Xaniu tells me that children are forbidden to go there and fishing is prohibited altogether. They call these restrictions /roɑ̃/, a concept similar to rāhui.
‘I’ll take you there sometime. I want you to see it.’ she promises.
ru- fæit̚ dʒesu wo
TNSpres?- lake? go.ASPcont I
I’m going to the lake.
The first time I ate on the island, Xaniu told me to boil lye-water in a ceramic saucepan (‘yiuma), before pouring it in into a bowl of garlic cloves and star anise, releasing a nauseating savoury smell. They wash the aromatics, so that only their purest flavour is imparted into the final dish. What I’m smelling are contaminants. When odourless, I halved the cloves with a qtak’, a wooden knife used for cutting soft things like cooked roots and jelly. Xaniu added them to a shallow pot of boiling coconut oil along with anise, fronds of dillweed and an entire chicken. We lined our plates with maexuq – a leathery, roasted seedbread made from finely milled sesame, quinoa and brine. Xaniu lifts the whole fried chicken with asbestos hands. She breaks it up by tearing it, with the help of the qtak’. The breast is shredded into fine feathers, and placed back into the oil. The thighs are left whole. I’ve never acquired a taste for maexuq, but moistened in the spiced coconut oil, it’s palatable.
Xaniu has an olive complexion, and is tall like everybody else here. Her hair is curly and auburn, unlike the blonde afro-textured hair of most other Xoi-speakers. Xaniu’s belly is distended, not from malnutrition, but from what appears to be halfway between pregnancy and scoliosis. Her twin daughters have a similar, but milder posture. They’re about 12 or 13. How old Xaniu was, I could never tell. She could be anywhere from 30 to 55. When she refused to say, I asked her children. Fae said she was really old, and Noarɑ̃ said she was immortal. I doubt the children have any idea either and I think Noarɑ̃ might suspect that her mother really is immortal, and that she herself is some kind of demigod.
no- qʷævəɐsu ɲɑ̃ɲɑ̃
TNSfut- Live.forever.ASPcontinuous Mother
Mother will live forever.
I’m nearing the end of my fieldwork, and over 11 months of recording this language, I haven’t been able to get a clear answer for what their land is called. While we talk about Aotearoa, they use this word to differentiate their land: /qʷərɐ/, a demonstrative locative meaning ‘here’. But I can’t pick out a proper noun from any of my transcripts.
I once asked Xaniu, ‘How you call this place?’. She responded with a blank face, expecting me to clarify the question. I asked again, ‘What is this island?’ pointing to the ground, and all around us. ‘What is the Xoi name?’
xok̚, I discovered, means graze, like an animal; so I asked Xaniu again.
I knew for a fact that was not the name of the island. The head morpheme /fæit̚/ means lake. Unless rɑ̃- is some kind of nominal prefix I haven’t learnt yet. Was Xaniu was playing a joke on me? Or does the name of the island carry some sense of privacy? Maybe for them, it would be like giving away their address, or phone number. My university insists on calling the island Xoi, which is not even the name of the language, just the name of the traditional housing unit, shaped like a hatbox, with three straight sides, a curved front and a flat roof that overhangs. Imagine a language where the word for ‘California’ is ‘Bungalow’.
One month left. A storm comes and floods the streets. The stream surges, and spreads a new layer of soil over the banks like overboiling milk. I lie awake in bed for hours, the rain saturating the air with an oppressive humidity.
I have a horrible nightmare.
In it, I wake up to a sky that looks like used grease from frying eggs. The whole island is grimy, torn apart by the storm. The air is unusually crisp, with low humidity.
Xaniu’s house is empty. All the windows are open. There’s no food on the table, no dishes in the basin. Usually the town smells like garlicky rice porridge in the morning, but it’s so empty that I can smell the ocean salt wafting in on the wind.
Out the window, massive flooding. Trees had been felled, entire bushes of sɐɲot̚ flowers had been uprooted, and tossed across town like wedding bouquets. They float down the street among the other debris, and from a distance look like bundles of plastic tape.
I wade outside, freezing lake. Plastic sheeting torn and splayed on the road, woodchips and metal hinges. The stream had turned into a rip current that backwashes into the lake. I follow it, upstream to the sea.
The shore is devastated. An enormous estuary has been carved out of the port beach. The fissured cliffs throw boulders into the waves. Trees float around the island 5 metres distant, like a planetary ring.
I edge closer to the estuary, now the island’s secondary lake. And on the turbid water, swollen and grey are Fae and Noarɑ̃. Their hands clutched at the bosom of a fat-bellied torso – Xaniu. I had slept through the tsunami.
Sheets drenched in sweat cling to my body. It’s still spitting outside. I stand up, blind from headrush, and stumble into the bathroom to vomit. I retch into a plastic basin. Grey, speckled bile purges from my mouth.
Xaniu finds me collapsed on the floor. She’d heard a loud crash upstairs. When she’d called my name I didn’t reply. My left arm is slumped over the edge of the metal bathtub, my right fist crushed under my belly. A wound weeps from the top of my scalp. I had swung my head back after vomiting, and hit the wooden shelf above the basin.
She heaves me into the bath, undresses me, and pours hot water over body. She commands her daughters to prepare first aid. Noarɑ̃ mixes five parts cold water to one part boiling, and adds salt until ‘like light broth’ as Xaniu said. Fae tears apart tissue paper and wraps it in muslin. They take turns holding the makeshift tissue bandage over my head. I keep bleeding down my face, dripping off my chin onto the plastic bath floor. Xaniu feeds me saltwater in sips until I stop shivering and can speak again.
fu- vokit̚ dʒɑ.wɑ̃ -ko
MOOD=IMPERATIVE- saltwater Boil.rush -??
?boil some saltwater quick?
Xaniu supports me on her shoulder, and takes me to Nurse Clara’s clinic in the centre of town. She drapes a sheet of tarpaulin as an emergency poncho over the both of us, I look at Fae and Noarɑ̃, capeless, and feel like the runt of the family, Xaniu’s burden.
When Xaniu is stressed, she only speaks in Xoi. Her diplomatic fluency in English vanishes like linguistic amnesia. I communicate with her only in yes and no questions. I get frustrated that I cannot understand her, and I have to stop myself from demanding that she speaks English, a mortal sin for linguists. I feel like a broken coloniser.
We enter the clinic, a series of interconnected shipping containers with an amorphous arrangement of beds and drip stands. An abundance of saline ampoules and syringes are scattered in piles over the floor. I dash outside to vomit bile. I make it to the stream. It is swollen like a wound. I watch my bile diffuse like fog into the clear water, before disappearing. Xaniu and Clara come to the edge of the stream. They support me to hobble back inside. Clara makes me down a whole glass of coconut water. It tastes like expensive soap. She lies me down, and listens to my chest, feels my lymph nodes, and checks my legs for oedema.
ru- kaʔu:-ɲə ɕɐ̃jt̚ vik̚:fæ
TNSpres?- vomit-PREPOSITION.with sick ??
?vik̚:fæ? is sick, vomiting.
There it is again. /vik̚:fæ/. It’s a word I’ve recorded multiple times, and it refers to me. I first assumed it was some of kind of colloquialism meaning ‘foreigner’, like Farang in Thai, or Laowai in Mandarin. But they don’t use it to refer to anybody but me, not my colleagues when I talk about my University back in Auckland, not when I tell them about my friends, celebrities, the captains of the ships that pass by here. Nobody else gets this title except for me; they never call Clara that, and she’s a short Korean nurse on mission from Christchurch. It might not have anything to do with foreignness. It’s obviously not a crude transliteration of my name, nor my position.
I vomit again. This time onto the floor. Some of it sinks into the flax floor-rug, staining it a saturated grey. Again, Clara offers me a glass of coconut water. ‘It’s got electrolytes’, she says, ‘you’ll be fine. Just a bit of gastro. No concussion, but keep your wound dressed for a while.’
‘When will I start feeling better?’
‘Depends. You just need lots of coconut water. Xaniu’s taking good care of you, taking you in, now nursing you. You really owe them one don’t you? Get working on saving the language, not long left?’
‘I’ve only just mapped out the entire phonetic inventory. It takes time to really chart things out and make sense of it all. Do you think it’s weird that the island doesn’t have a name?’
‘Maybe. But think about it, do you have a name for the block you live on back in Auckland? Just the suburb right?’
‘I guess not. But this is a whole island.’
‘Do you need it for your work? Just use qʷərɐ like everyone else. Maybe that really is the name. Maybe it’s like… how places like Newton are named. New Town. They call it ‘here’. That is the name.’
I give her a doubtful mouth-smile. She mops the floor with undiluted Dettol.
Xaniu spends the next couple of hours spoonfeeding me coconut water until I feel well enough to leave go home. Fae and Noarɑ̃ play with the plastic ampoules of saline by my bed. Clara doesn’t tell them off, but Xaniu does.
fu- dʒuʔe -ɲəroɐ̃-na.ɲe!
MOOD.Imperative play -PREPOSITION.with.DEMONSTRATIVE.FAR.PL NEG
Don’t play with those!
Xaniu insists that I stay in bed the rest of the day, and tomorrow too if need be. She confiscates my notes and equipment and places them out of reach from my bed, replacing them with young coconuts for me to drink. I tell her not to crack them open.
‘Don’t split up any stacks of paper! They’re in chronological order,’ I growl.
‘Sorry. I think I moved some of this pile.’ Transcriptions from that first time I ate here. ‘I’ll put it back.’
‘Is something dripping?’ I ask.
An opened coconut had toppled over, and spilled onto a long transcription from an interview with the clay-worker I met who works near the meadow’s edge.
‘I’m so sorry…’ Xaniu rushes to the bathroom for a towel and tries to dab the juice away. No use. The pages will have stuck together from the starch and sugar. ‘Forget it Xaniu. It’s okay.’ I sigh.
‘Xaniu, let me ask you something. Your language is the most complex, beautiful thing I’ve ever studied. Why don’t you have a name for it? Why doesn’t this place have a name? Aren’t you offended that I keep calling it Xoi? What, am I meant to call my research ‘A grammar of untitled?’’
Xaniu walks away from me. She clutches her belly, caressing her ghost foetus.
‘We are not a new species you’ve discovered,’ says Xaniu. ‘You’re just a linguist.’
July. The storm stained the island with a lingering cloud. It seemed to infect Xaniu too. We’ve said little to each other since I offended her. I keep thinking about the backwashing stream I dreamt about. One morning I remind Xaniu that she still hasn’t taken me to the lake.
Without looking at me, she calls across the street to her neighbour.
‘The vik̚:fæ needs my time. Can you take the girls for a couple of hours?’
I’ve grown to hate that name. Before waiting for a reply, Xaniu ushers Fae and Noarɑ̃ out of the house and makes them wait at the neighbour’s door. By the time I get my camera bag ready, the neighbour has opened the door, waved me a friendly good morning, and a smile. He lets the girls in; neither of them say goodbye to their mother. I never learned his name; he’s the elderly gentleman with very dark skin who told me what xok̚ really meant. He uses a strange Object-Verb-Subject word order that I’ve only noticed among other elderly speakers. Xaniu would always rearrange his sentences back to the usual Verb-Subject-Object for me.
We set off towards the lake, walking as if we were scaling parallel tightropes. Our words stammer out, calculated and tense.
‘I’m starting to think vik̚:fæ is a bit of an insult, Xaniu.’
I can tell her fluency is starting to fade again.
‘It means undertaker.’
‘So it is an insult then?’
Silence. Her English sloughs off the further inland we go.
We finally arrive at a meadow plateau surrounded in reeds and high carex bushes.
It’s not a lake.
Suspended in a gelatin-clear lagoon is a drowned city. Mosaic roads paved with hewn rocks. The tops of some taller buildings peek above the water. They look like three Xoi houses stacked on top of each other with a spiral staircase winding around the outside like a frilly dress.
‘Our library.’ Xaniu points.
It’s the closest building to the shore. Like a huge Samoan fale, with a rounded roof; it has holes lined with shattered glass, the ruins of skylights. Xaniu points out remnants of tablets, books and posters washed up on the shore. I had thought they were algae or dead leaves. Most of them are mush, like toilet tissue on a bathroom floor. The sun had bleached the literature long ago.
The city’s size frightens me. It makes the island seem bigger than it is. The lake is around the size of Okareka in Rotorua, barely big enough to fit a suburb, but the city has the density of Macau. The buildings and streets tessellate to a formula of three buildings to a block, then five, and then eight. I can see through rotting patchwork roofs the reclining skeletons of Xoi ancestors. Some of them are reading. Some of them are sleeping. They are all speaking Xoi under the water. They are teaching me all the things I am missing. They tell me what the mystery pro-clitics mean, their distribution and morphology, why elders use different word order. The library is open.
‘The name of this place is /fæit̚/,’ says Xaniu.
‘/fæit̚/,’ I repeat. A word I already knew. I thought it meant ‘lake’.
Xaniu takes off her sandals, and leads me down to the waterline. There is no beach. The weak waves ripple up onto bushes of carex-grass, teasing them from the roots, and dissolving the soil around them. She dips her feet in, and I follow her, keeping my shoes on. The water stays shallow for a long time, suggesting an encroaching foreshore.
We wade in further, and it starts plunging down as we approach the city-fringe. I trip and fall under the water. I taste seawater.
‘Xaniu. Take me back.’
She grips my hand tight. Folds her fingers into my palm and drags me further in. ‘Xaniu! Take me back! Take me back!’ The lakebed slopes down, water presses against my chest. Hard to breathe. The city swallows, we slip towards it.
She stops. Lets go of my hand. We are shoulder deep in the lake, the water still and tasting more and more of carbonate. She is weeping. Wailing and breaking waves with her arms. Her long hair is soaked, floating like dead jellyfish. For a moment, Xaniu cries ink. Diffusing onto the surface of the water, her tears unravel into an ancient spiralling orthography.
‘Xaniu… Let’s go back.’
She replies in the language of fæit̚. I don’t understand what she says.
Xaniu never speaks English again. It forces me to learn the language in my final few days. I start to decode some more morphemes. /-ɦæ/ isn't a tense marker at all. It’s a discourse function that distances and honours the addressee.
The sɐɲot̚ flowers I keep by my bed are rotten. I had stopped picking fresh sɐɲot̚ in my last two weeks, preferring to cling to this bouquet and watch it wilt, pretending each day that its beauty had evolved and not seeped out.
Xaniu makes my least favourite Xoi food for my last breakfast – maexuq. Noarɑ̃ cuts into a dish of creamed coconut fat with a qtak’, and spreads it on hard pieces of maexuq. She passes them around the table. I take one and dip it into my porridge. The girls always laugh at me for this. 6 months and I never learnt to eat maexuq. Far too toothy for my bland, New Zealand palate.
The word for goodbye is /xei:/. Fae cries, but Noarɑ̃ and Xaniu don’t. I cry a little bit. Then a lot more when I arrive at the jetty.
My suitcase is stuffed with inventories of lexical structures, and meaningless phonetic transcriptions. It looks like stolen treasure next to the sea, the pages to be preserved like painted and repainted leather. The sea whispers in Xaniu’s voice, vik̚:fæ. Let fæit̚ plummet into me. Let it rest.
The waves encroach onto the end of the jetty. It’s slanted, the foundation eroding away. fæit̚’s isolate beach is shrinking, steeper every season, swallowed by the ocean’s salivating mouth.
I move the suitcase back from the water, guarding it like a casket.