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Adventures in Xenolinguistics

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On their first night in the Centauri prison cell, Londo woke in a cold sweat.

The place was silent—unnervingly so. On the station, even when things were at their most quiet, there was always sound: the low whine of the air recyclers, the hum of the rotation engines. When Londo first came aboard, he had hated it with a passion. He’d bought earplugs to sleep with—not that they’d helped. The whole place vibrated, just subtly enough to be unnoticeable when awake, and intolerable when asleep.

Now, though… he found he had trouble sleeping without the sound. The silence was too much like being dead.

“Quite ironic, really,” said G’Kar, in a way that so closely mirrored Londo’s own thoughts that he startled. “I used to come up with a million petty ways to annoy you, should we ever be trapped in the same location. It’s a bit of a waste not to use them now that I have the chance, but… Well, I suppose it wouldn’t be fun anymore.”

“Go back to sleep,” Londo said, rolling to face the wall of the cell.

“Why should I? You’re up.”

“Not by choice, I assure you. And I will be going back to sleep now. If you don’t mind.”

Silence again, but only for a few minutes, and there was a part of Londo which was irrationally grateful for that.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

“…I don’t know what ‘it’ is, G’Kar. The Regent? This prison cell? The Alliance? Our place in the universe? You will have to be a little more specific.”

“The dreams, Mollari.”

Londo said nothing for a very long time. So long that he thought, perhaps, that G’Kar had given up on an answer and fallen asleep.

The silence in the cell was deafening, and he hated it.

“…I understand. Forget I asked anything.”

Londo seized onto the sound of G’Kar’s voice like a drowning man.

“How do you know I am having dreams, hmm?”

“Most sentient creatures who sleep have dreams. It’s the brain’s way of processing loose information, I’m told. Dr. Franklin has several theories regarding the differences in sleep cycles between species; I’m sure he’d be happy to share them with you sometime.”

“That is not what I meant, G’Kar, and you know it.”

“…You know, I take it back. There is still some fun in annoying you after all.”

“G’Kar…”

“Your body language is different,” G’Kar said, and Londo blinked at the sudden switch back to seriousness. “Whenever you wake from one of… One of those dreams.”

“And which dreams are ‘those dreams’?”

A pause; much longer than Londo was expecting. Then, “You forget that I saw the inner workings of you mind, Mollari.”

Londo scoffed. “Oh, believe me, I don’t think I will ever forget that. Nor will Vir, I imagine.”

G’Kar made a pained sound somewhere in the back of his throat, and Londo rolled over to look at him.

He was sitting up, staring at the wall, an unreadable expression on his face.

“G’Kar…”

“I am… sorry… for that.”

Londo sat up. “Why are you apologizing now?”

“Because I realized that I never have? Better late than never, as the humans say.”

Londo wasn’t sure what to say to that, so he nodded, and awkwardly looked away. “I… Thank you. I don’t… Neither Vir nor I hold that against you, anymore, I think.”

Silence again – a little more bearable now that Londo was awake. Still, it was something of a relief when G’Kar spoke again.

“My point… was merely that I know. Your… death dream.”

“Ah. I see.”

“Then I’ll ask again… Do you want to talk about it?”

Londo sighed. “If– If you saw it, when you were in my mind, then I think you’d know that you are probably the worst person for me to talk about it with.”

G’Kar shrugged. “Maybe. Or the best, perhaps.”

“I… No. There is too much; I would not know where to start.”

“I am never sure where to start, with you.”

Londo nodded; it was true enough. He glanced at G’Kar: still looking away from him, still unreadable in the moonlight.

…And with no trace of the hatred it would take to finally strangle him to death.

“It is a terrible thing, I think. To hate your future more than you hate your past.”

G’Kar hesitated for a moment, as though carefully choosing his next words.

“…I know your people put a good deal of stock in these sorts of things, but–”

“We place stock in them because they are true, G’Kar. I would not expect you to understand.”

G’Kar shrugged. “Well, then, I guess there isn’t much for us to talk about after all. Good night, Mollari.” He started to lie back down.

“Wait,” said Londo, surprising himself a bit. “I didn’t mean to be so… snappish about it. But you will not convince me to disregard what I know to be true so easily. You understand, yes?”

“That depends. Are you saying that you want me to try harder, or to let it drop?”

“Let it drop. This is not a point that will be amusing to argue about, for either of us.”

G’Kar made a face, but he nodded in agreement. “Fine, then. Tell me, Mollari, which part of your dream do you despise so much? That I kill you? Or that you kill me?”

“Neither,” Londo answered instantly, and G’Kar cocked his brow.

“Oh…?”

“It’s not the killing, G’Kar; it’s what comes along with it—the hatred. Mine, more than yours, since I’m sure you were going to ask that next.”

G’Kar ‘hmm’-ed in a noncommittal way, and swung his legs around so he was facing Londo properly.

“Do you hate me, Mollari?”

Londo made a vague, disdainful sound. “I find… language is not really adequate, in this respect. Words like hate, love, trust? At the end of the day, what do any of them really mean?”

“So, then…?”

“No. Of course I do not hate you now, G’Kar. But what good is that, hmm? When I will hate you again in the future?”

“You don’t know that.”

“G’Kar, as I have said, a death dream is–“

“Yes, yes, your fates are predestined, very well, if you believe that. But you still don’t know that you’ll hate me, when it happens. If it happens.”

Londo scoffed. “Yes, well. I do not go around strangling my friends to death, no matter what you may think.”

G’Kar fiddled with one of his gloves. “And… Is that what we are now? Friends?”

Silently, Londo cursed the verbal slip. The word ‘friend’, the very idea of it, crossed so many lines, so many careful compromises. But… it was so easy to say. Much easier than it would ever be to describe his and G’Kar’s actual relationship.

“I don’t… Words are… inadequate, again, here, I think.”

“Oh? What do you mean?”

“Well…” Londo took a breath, and thought for a moment before answering. “It is like I said. People throw around words like hatred and love and friendship and so on but… Those feelings change, do they not? And yet, even when the type of feeling changes, it seems like sometimes the strength of it remains.

“I have… I have spent so much of my life hating you, G’Kar. And now that I no longer hate you, I suppose it is expected that I should feel nothing for you. But… We keep being drawn together, you and I. It’s like… It’s like, perhaps, our fates are intertwined. Our souls connected, as they say. And, I cannot really call what we have a friendship, because it’s not. Not really; not in the sense that people mean, when they use that word.

“But also… ‘friendship’ is so very insufficient. When I try it on for size in my mind, it feels as wrong as calling the thing which Sheridan and Delenn share a ‘friendship’. Except they are in love, and I certainly do not love you. And I do not know what to make of that. As I said, language is not adequate. Not at all.”

G’Kar chuckled.

“What is so funny, eh? Here you ask me to– to explain to you this, to ‘bare my lungs’ as the humans say, and you–!“

“No, no, you misunderstand,” said G’Kar quickly. “All that you have said… Well, I suppose it is much the same from my end. But only a Centauri could come to that ridiculous conclusion.”

“What ridiculous conclusion? I don’t see that I have concluded anything; that is a bit at the heart of the problem.”

“Mollari, it is not uncommon to find yourself confronted with an idea that you do not know how to express. In that sort of situation, any rational being would conclude that they lacked the knowledge or tools for the job. Perhaps they might even posit that those tools did not yet exist, and so invent their own for the purpose. Ah, but a Centauri concludes that the problem is the very nature of language itself. If you haven’t already thought of something perfect at that very moment, then the task is beyond you, nay, beyond anyone. It simply cannot be done; the universe has decreed otherwise.”

“Oh, I didn’t say that; you are being terribly unfair G’Kar.”

“Yes, indeed. I like to think of it as something of an art form.”

“And anyways, I did not say that it was impossible to express. Merely that language—as it currently exists—is inadequate.”

“Ah, but there you just as wrong.”

“Oh?”

“Yes. We Narn have a perfectly good set of vocabulary for expressing those things. Truth be told, I’ve always found the ‘friend’ and ‘enemy’ distinctions that other races make to be imprecise and cumbersome.”

Londo scoffed. “You forget that I have studied your language. You have words for ‘friend’ and ‘enemy’, same as we do.”

“Well, yes. But since they are the same word, I think you’ve failed to make your point.”

“Now you are just pulling my leg. ‘thonouri’ is ‘friend’, is it not? And ‘thonquah’ is ‘enemy’? They are not the same word at all.”

Now G’Kar was laughing in earnest.

“Oh, bah. My accent is not that bad.”

“True,” said G’Kar, surprising him. “No one would mistake you for a native speaker, but your tones are fairly good, considering. Your Narn is probably better than my Centauri.”

“That–,” said Londo, a half-formed retort dying in his throat. “…Thank you.”

“But,” continued G’Kar, and of course, there was always a ‘but’, “the fact that those are the translations you were taught is fairly revealing about Centauri culture.”

“How so?”

“Well, we Narn don’t measure our connection with others by the type of feeling we have for them. We do it the rational way: by how well we know them.”

“I am not sure I follow. Are you saying that ‘thonouri’ is not friend?”

“Not exactly. You see, if your feelings of friendship are primarily ‘ouri’, and you have only known the person for a short while—or else you have never spent much personal time with them, apart from business or family affairs—That is, you are not their ‘on’kat’—Or, if you are merely speaking generally, and so are not trying to identify the person as either your ‘on’kat’ or your ‘ankir’, then…”

G’Kar slowed to a halt as he realized that Londo was not following any of this in the slightest.

“Let me start over.”

“Please,” said Londo, and made a sort of flippant hand gesture that G’Kar could only roll his eyes at.

“It’s really quite simple.”

Londo snorted, but G’Kar continued, unperturbed.

“We Narn have levels of relationship—the most commonly used one of these is ‘thon’. Then, there are modifiers, which tell the type of feeling you have for the person. So, ‘thonouri’ is someone who is your ‘thon’, and who you have feeling of ‘ouri’ for; ‘thonquah’ is a ‘thon’ who you have feelings of ‘quah’ for.”

“I see… Very strange…” Londo thought for a moment. “But, wait. You said levels. There is more than just ‘thonouri’ and ‘thonquah’, then?”

“Indeed. There are four levels of relationship. The first, ‘eliuk’, are those who are almost entirely unknown to you: those who you recognize, but have only rarely and briefly interacted with. Not strangers, but the next thing after strangers.”

“Acquaintances,” Londo supplied.

“More or less,” said G’Kar. “Then, you have ‘thon’: those whose habits you have come to know, whose likes and dislikes you are familiar with.”

“So, friends.”

“Not necessarily. When we first came to know each other, Mollari, you were my ‘thon’: I knew you gambled compulsively, I knew your tastes in liquor, I was familiar with your moods and body language—At the time, all of these were things I despised, but the important thing was merely that I knew them.”

“I see…” said Londo slowly.

“After ‘thon’, there is ‘on’kat’: those you are close with. The classic test of ‘on’kat’ is, how much would their absence affect your day to day life? Someone who you know well, but who is essentially interchangeable to you can never be your ‘on’kat’.”

“Ah,” said Londo. “So… Let me see if I have this right. Lennier always struck me as a decent fellow; too straight-laced, but someone whose company I enjoyed. But, when he left the station, I didn’t really find that I missed him, exactly. I didn’t have things I wanted to tell him or show him that I couldn’t tell or show anyone else. Therefore he is my ‘thon’ and not my ‘on’kat’?”

“Precisely.”

“But Vir—he misses Lennier a great deal, even though all they ever really did together was talk and complain. So, Vir and Lennier are ‘on’kat’, yes?”

“I never really saw the two of them together, but yes, that sounds correct.”

“And the fourth level?”

G’Kar smiled. “Ah. That would be ‘ankir’—What we are to each other now, I suspect.”

Londo made a startled choking sound.

“Have I said something strange?”

“I–“ Londo fumbled for words. “When I studied your language… Well, that is to say that my translations must have been quite off, if we are, as you say, ‘ankir’.”

“Oh? And what did they tell you that ‘ankir’ meant?”

“They– It was–“ Londo took a breath. “…Well. I had always thought that ‘ankir’ was how you referred to… lovers.”

G’Kar laughed again, and Londo laughed with him in a way that was more tense than amused.

“Oh, I know plenty of lovers who wish they were ‘ankir’,” said G’Kar, and that… that was not really comforting at all.

“G’Kar…” said Londo, and he let a hint of his political voice creep into his tone, “All the… what is the word… Flirting. Those were all jokes, yes? I… I was not trying to give the wrong impression–“

This only made G’Kar laugh harder. “No, no! Of course they were jokes; that’s not the point. How typically Centauri. Give them a perfectly good word about emotional intimacy, and all they can see there is sex. And you say we are the ones governed by animal instincts.”

“G’Kar, I feel as though a joke is being made at my expense.”

“Oh, I assure you, it is.”

“Well, I do not find it particularly funny, and I do not understand it.”

“Oh, very well,” G’Kar relented, but his eyes were still laughing. “The word ‘ankir’… Well, none of it is about sex. Or about love, for that matter. It can be, if those are the feelings which modify your relationship, but it certainly doesn’t have to be. Many of the greatest Narn epics are about ‘ankirquah’—archenemies, you might say? You can have strong emotional bonds of hate, or love, or any number of things. It’s the strength of the bonds that matters. There are hundreds of people in our lives we consider ‘thon’; dozens we consider ‘on’kat’. But a life with even one or two ‘ankir’ is a very good life, no matter what sort of ‘ankir’.”

Londo nodded, slowly. “I see. So… it should be ‘ankirouri’, then, for those who are close out of love? Not merely ‘ankir’?”

G’Kar scoffed. “G’Quan forbid! I cannot even fathom what an ‘ankirouri’ relationship would be like—Perhaps Delenn’s feelings for Lennier.”

He paused, suddenly.

“That… That was a very cruel thing for me to say; please forget I said it. And on your life, Mollari, never, ever repeat it to either of them.”

“…Why? Great Maker, just as I thought I was beginning to understand, it seems you have lost me again, completely. If ‘ankir’ is for strong feelings, and ‘ouri’ is love–”

G’Kar sighed. “The modifier ‘ouri’ is not love. It is… pity.”

Londo said nothing, but his mouth formed a silent ‘oh’.

“So, as to your original question, no, ‘ankirouri’ is not the way you would refer to lovers.”

“Wait a moment,” said Londo, holding up a finger. “You say ‘ankirouri’ is not how you speak of lovers… but ‘thonouri’ is how you speak of friends?!”

“No…” said G’Kar slowly. “‘thonouri’ is how you speak of friends. Apparently. As I said, very revealing about Centauri culture.”

“Ah,” said Londo. “I… Yes. You are right, that… how do you say. That cuts a little close to home.”

They sat in silence for a time then, until Londo couldn’t bear it any longer.

“So, what I am to you then, hmm? A hate-friend, or a pity-friend?”

G’Kar closed his eyes for a moment as he thought about that.

“Well, when we met, I certainly hated you. I think I first started to pity you when I was in your mind… And when I was held captive by Cartagia, of course; I pitied you a great deal, then. But now? Well… I respect you; far more than I’d like to, to be honest. I trust you to a degree that sometimes frightens me—at least where the important things are concerned. You’re still insufferably annoying to me, but I find that these days, I look on that annoyance with a sort of… almost fondness? I even think I admire you, in part, although the pity is stronger. So… some combination of all of those, I should think.”

It was significantly more of an answer than Londo was expecting, and for a moment, he was a little bit taken aback.

“But… wait. So then, there are more modifiers than just hatred and pity?”

G’Kar snorted. “Of course! Can you even imagine a language which only had two? Or, well, I suppose you can.”

Londo found himself actually chuckling at the obvious bait, and oh, how things between them had changed, hadn’t they. “So… You have ‘thonouri’ and ‘thonquah’, and what else?”

“Oh, let’s see… ‘thonzok’, ‘thonruli’, ‘thonkha’… There must be at least a dozen common modifiers. And probably hundreds of uncommon ones, since poets will practically make up new ones on the spot.”

“It sounds very confusing. Very hard to keep track of, I’d imagine.”

“No harder than it is to keep track of all your terminology, what with ‘friends’, and ‘enemies’, and ‘lovers’, and lovers who claim that they are ‘just friends’, and friends who pretend to be enemies…”

“And don’t forget the enemies who pretend to be friends, eh?”

“Oh, of course. And enemies with whom you form partnerships of convenience; what do you Centauri even call those, Mollari?”

“In the Royal Court? Business as usual, I should think.”

“And then there are those people who you were once one thing with, but now you are another; how is that not more confusing? ‘Former-friends’? ‘Former-enemies?’”

Londo looked away. “Yes. And, worst of all, I think… soon-to-be former-friends.”

They were silent again, and Londo could feel G’Kar’s eyes on him, but couldn’t quite meet his gaze. There was, he thought, probably too much ‘ouri’ there.

“I… I think I will go back to sleep now, G’Kar,” he said, finally, as he lay back down on the prison cot, his back to the rest of the cell.

“Alright,” said G’Kar, and Londo wished that G’Kar’s voice were less kind, and wished that the cell hummed like his quarters on the station, and wished a million times over that he would not die with hatred in his hearts.

A long time passed in silence before G’Kar finally spoke again, so quietly that Londo wouldn’t have heard it if he’d been anywhere near sleep.

“…Mollari?”

“…Yes, G’Kar?”

“No matter how the feelings between us have changed, when it happens… we will still be ankir.”

“Even if…?”

“Yes. Always.”

“Always,” Londo echoed, into the dead, silent night. “Well, then. I suppose… at least there is that.”