Colorless Green Ideas

By Shaenon K. Garrity

Colorless Green IdeasSteve Allen

Tony’s lips were of some kind of horn or chitin, like mother-of-pearl, so he clicked his way through labial consonants. Ps and Bs became hard Cs. Alveolar and palatal consonants came from way, way back in the throat, susurrating. He was fine with vowels. None of that was important – this wasn’t the speech therapy department – except that it made him hard to understand when he got embarrassed and rushed through his reading, like he did every time. Sophie shoved the thought aside. It wasn’t like she could ever pronounce Tony’s real name correctly. She tried to ignore his accent and focus on what he was saying.

What he was saying was, “Moreover, through end to end am song of the tools against Man Ray via charcoal and traditional Chinese brushwork or any.”

Back in college, which suddenly seemed way, way back indeed, Sophie had gone through a phase of memorizing nonsense for fun. The slithy toves did gyre and gimble for the Snark was a Boojum, you see. It was the kind of trick that got a girl invited to a lot of literary magazine meetings and not a lot of parties. The point of good nonsense writing, what separated nonsense from gibberish, was that it followed rules; it gave the impression of almost making sense. It was fun, seeing patterns where other people saw nothing.

Tony’s essay was not good nonsense.

“Let’s stop right here,” said Sophie. Tony looked up, eyes pulsating expectantly. “I’m sure you covered this in ESL-100, but let’s go over it again. Sentences in English go how?”

Sophie grabbed a piece of scrap paper and wrote, large enough for Tony to read, S-V-O. Tony’s head deflated slightly. “Subject, verb, object,” he hissed.

“Good. Good. See, you know this. You have a noun, you have something it does, and usually – not always, but usually – you have something it does it to. Right? Now, I know it’s hard learning verbs if you’re coming from a language that doesn’t have any. It’s a pain, right?”

Tony smiled sheepishly. Sophie smiled back. Somewhere behind her smile, her brain was groaning but all languages have verbs, that’s one of the basic components of a language, you can communicate without conjunctions or plurals or colors other than black and white but you can’t express ideas without verbs! Chomsky said this and Chomsky said that – and Sophie shut her brain up and pressed on.

“Now, you have a verb in this sentence, right? You have ‘am.’ The thing is, that verb has to connect to a subject and object. What’s the subject of this sentence, Tony?”

Tony stared at his essay.

“It’s the first sentence of your essay. This is the sentence where you explain what you’re going to tell us. So what are you telling us about?”

And how the hell does it make sense to begin an essay with “Moreover,” she didn’t add. Tony’s seashell mouth opened and closed silently.

Sophie decided to try another tack. Maybe she could get him to rephrase. “Okay, ‘the tools against Man Ray.’ What do you mean by that?”

“Not photography here,” said Tony. “With Man Ray photography of surrealism, with new hands tools of surrealism.”

Sophie had been tutoring him long enough to know that “new hands” indicated Tony’s own hands, his own artwork. That was another thing: their languages didn’t seem to have “I” or “me.” In this case, almost miraculously, she could translate. “So what you mean is you use charcoal and brushwork to get the Surrealistic effects of Man Ray’s photography.”

Tony smiled. “Effects. Effects.” A new word to memorize.

“Good. Okay, we’ll say that. But you get that when you write in English, people won’t understand you unless you have that subject-verb-object thing going, right?” Sophie watched her plump left hand scribble frantically on the scrap paper, churning out possible sentences, penciling in definitions for words Tony might not know. “Now, you wrote ‘song.’ The song of the tools. What do you mean by that?”

Another blank stare.

“Maybe it’d help if I could look at the work itself.” Sophie pushed her keyboard in front of Tony. “Do you have samples of your art online?”

Tony nodded. He was back on solid ground now. His spidery hands flew over the keyboard, pulling up an online portfolio, the kind all students, regardless of species, had to submit to get into the Northern Ohio Academy of Art and Design.

Most aliens sent their kids to unaccredited art schools. NOAAD had about two hundred alien students in residence. They made up one of the largest visitor populations outside the colonies in Ohio, Nevada, and Vancouver where nearly all aliens still lived. They remained sheltered behind flimsy-looking plastic barriers almost ten years after landing. When they had started enrolling in art schools, three years back, the media had speculated that they were an artistic race, but it seemed increasingly likely that it was because these schools didn’t have an English proficiency requirement. NOAAD had always been happy to take international students who didn’t speak a lick of English. They could keep up by taking ESL classes at extra tuition.

The alien kids certainly paid their tuition – in cash, according to the bursar. Where they got the money was a little unclear to Sophie, but the news was always confusing that way.

The staff knew so little about the aliens. For that matter, it was presumptuous of Sophie to assume that these were kids, but when she dealt with students like Tony, it was so much like dealing with a typical nineteen-year-old art student that she had little doubt.

If only tutoring him didn’t require a twenty-minute explanation every time they came up against a verb…

Tony was flipping through his portfolio, proudly showing off charcoal sketches of nudes (Sophie recognized Mara, one of her printmaking students), abstract Chinese brushwork, and surreal compositions with alien figures. Or maybe they weren’t surreal wherever Tony’s people came from. She could see the Man Ray influence, and maybe Diane Arbus, too.

“Did you take a photography class?” she asked.

“PHO 106,” said Tony. Alien students always referred to their classes by course number. Not having memorized the NOAAD directory, she seldom knew whose class they were talking about.

“Who was your instructor?”

“Laura Soryo.”

“Ah. She’s pretty tough, isn’t she?”

Tony grinned. “Control, control. Lots of work at whenever and.”

“But you enjoyed it?”

“Yes!” In the silence, interrupted only by a persistent clicking sound, Tony scrambled for words. “Not photography there. Not of old hands. Of photography new mind, of art new mind, art of at the photography of here then.”

Did he mean that photography was a new idea to him? That his people had never invented photography, or maybe they’d just never hit on the idea of photography as art, and it was a new concept to Tony and the other alien students? Were there many of them in the photography department? Sophie made a mental note to ask around. If that were the case, no wonder Man Ray had made such a big impression on Tony.

Or maybe she’d misunderstood him entirely.

“I still don’t understand what you mean by song,” she said. “To us, song means…la la la.” This elicited another grin from Tony. “But I don’t understand what you mean by the song of the tools.”

“Tools,” said Tony. “Brushwork. Camera. Charcoal. Chiaroscuro. Tools, et cetera.”

“Okay, some of those aren’t tools, some of those are techniques or…” Sophie waved it away. “Never mind, that’s another discussion. What do you mean by song?”

Blank stare.

She pointed at the portfolio piece on the screen, an alien face rendered in dramatic, distorting ink wash. “Can you show me on this piece? Is there a song of this piece?”

Blank stare.

“How would you say it in your language?”

Blank stare.

Sophie hadn’t expected anything else, but what could she do other than ask? The aliens never spoke anything but Earth languages in the presence of humans. Spoke them badly, a voice in the back of Sophie’s head griped, but she ignored it. Many TV pundits had suggested that they had no language of their own. Sophie didn’t think that was true. All the alien students who came in for tutoring used the same odd syntax: no comprehension of verbs, no pronouns, strange ways of expressing time, conjunctions sprinkled in generously and apparently at random, phrases like “new hands” and “under the yellow.” Good God, they all used “under the yellow” and she still had no idea what it meant.

They must have had their own language. They wouldn’t have been so adept at picking up vocabulary otherwise. The communication failure occurred on some deeper level, on some basic stratum of words or concepts or mental processing, and so far it had persisted for ten mystifying years.

Sophie gave Tony a reassuring smile. “Let’s move on to the next sentence for now, okay?”

Tony nodded, relieved. He turned back to the paper, his lips clicking. “See faces am new faces am gray faces am light with the dressmaker’s dummy but.”

The exquisite corpse will drink the new wine, thought Sophie. She picked up her pencil and took a deep breath.

Sophie should have heard about Tony’s death. But she had skipped the news and had instead spent the morning in the basement of the school’s industrial workshop on Welling Street setting up the laser cutters for her 200-level printmaking class. The workshop staff had argued with her over which week she’d reserved the lasers for. She finally had to call Don Conley, who taught Book Arts, and barter with him for the slot. By the time the class rolled around at eleven, Sophie was past ready to go home.
Only eight students showed up, just half the class. The two alien students, Liz and Michael, were absent.

“Did everyone get my email about meeting here this week?” Sophie asked.

Some of the kids shuffled their feet. “Didn’t you hear?” said Ae Sook, one of the international students and Sophie’s secret favorite in the class.

“Hear what?”

This set off a murmur. Jerome, whom Sophie knew primarily by his sloppy intaglio, spoke up. “Tony Chrrrut.” He pronounced Tony’s name with surprising ease. “He killed himself.”

Sophie’s insides froze. She had just tutored Tony, what, two days before? He couldn’t be dead. It couldn’t be true.

“But…why?” she asked, knowing as she spoke how silly and pointless it sounded.

“Nobody knows,” volunteered another student, Yuki. “You didn’t look online today?”

“I’ve been in the lab.” Suddenly Sophie felt like the student, her class playing the role of disappointed teachers. She pulled herself together. “We can discuss this later. We only have the laser cutters for one day, so let’s get started.”

Midway through the class, when everyone was busy preparing their plates for cutting, Jerome came up to Sophie. “You ever meet Tony?” he asked.

“Yes. Yes, I did. I tutored him in English.”

“He lived in my hall. EMTs woke me up this morning.” Jerome looked at the ceiling. “You have any idea he was gonna do somethin’ like this?”

“No. He seemed perfectly fine the last time I saw him. Did you…?”

“Naw, under the yellow.”

Sophie nearly jumped. “What did you say?”

Jerome grinned, shifting his bony shoulders. “Sorry. It’s like a slang thing. They say it, you know?”

“Yes, I’ve heard it. What does it mean?”

“It don’t mean nothin’. I mean, it don’t mean anything in English. When somebody says it to you, it’s like, this isn’t a thing I can even explain. You know?”

“Colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” Sophie said.

“Huh?”

“It’s an old linguistic joke, sort of. Noam Chomsky – the cognitive scientist – was challenged to make up a sentence that was grammatically perfect but didn’t make sense. That’s what he came up with. I used to be into nonsense and memorized a bunch of…” Jerome was staring at her, his lip twitching a little. “Thanks. I’ll have to remember that one.”

Outside the lab, there was no avoiding Tony’s death. News crews were everywhere. Her phone wouldn’t stop singing of voicemails. Sophie had never seen anything like it in person, not even when the first alien students had enrolled at NOAAD.

A crowd had gathered around a TV in the student center. On the screen the ambassadors of the local were speaking to a small army of interpreters. People called them ambassadors, anyway. Maybe they were leaders or scientists or something else. They were the only ones besides the students who were ever seen outside the colony. All three of them, as far as Sophie had ever been able to tell, struggled with Earth-language communication even more than Tony or the others on campus. The message definitely wasn’t getting through to the media, who filled the airtime as best they could.

“…nearing the sixth hour of discussion,” an anchorwoman was saying in voiceover. “Mike, have there been any updates from the translation team?”

“Sorry, Julie. According to a spokesperson, all they can work out so far is that the colonists are very upset about the student’s death.”

“Understandably, Mike. This is the first known death of a colonist on Earth?”

“That’s right, and certainly the first death of one of the residential students. People here are speculating that the colonists are blaming humans for the death, or they’re taking it as a personal attack. They may be demanding that some kind of amends be made. So far that’s the best guess. It’s very unclear, but they are definitely upset.”

“And we still have no idea why Mr. Cheroot committed suicide?”

“Sorry, Julie.”

“Thick on water,” a girl next to Sophie said. Several of the kids around her, human and alien, nodded.

So she went into the garden to cut a cabbage-leaf to make an apple pie, Sophie thought.

The National Guard arrived the next day and was greeted by competing teams of student protesters, all angry. The media scrambled to understand what, precisely, they were protesting. The police had given up and were threatening to arrest everyone. Guardsmen paced the central quad, ignoring the students hooting at their rifles.

One of the girls in for tutoring, Fang Hua (she preferred Jenny), explained the situation to Sophie. The protesters in black were demanding restitution to the colony for Tony’s death, even though they admitted they had no idea what restitution would mean or what, exactly, it would be for. The protesters in red were part of an aliens-go-home movement. The ones in white face paint were fasting for a peaceful resolution, and the ones in green hoodies were still protesting the tuition hike from last semester.

“But I thought I saw some colonists in red shirts,” Sophie said.

“Yes, some join that side,” Jenny said.

“They’re protesting to kick themselves off campus?”

Jenny shrugged. “It’s complicated.”

“Under the yellow, huh?”

Jenny looked surprised. She smiled. “Under the yellow, control, control, right?”

“Um…yes?” Was this another incomprehensible alien phrase adopted as slang around campus? “Hey, do you know what ‘thick on water’ means?”

“Oh sure. It means bad. Bad and unfair, and…especially for talking about the future, right?”

“Is that…” Sophie was seized by an amazing thought. “Is that what it means when the colonists say it, too?”

Jenny shrugged. “Sure. My roommate, Heather Tktkthk, me and my friends learned from her. Picked it up.”

“Yes, that’s the phrase.” Should she tell Jenny she had just demonstrated more understanding of the aliens than any so-called expert currently bloviating on the news? Maybe she already knew. “And ‘under the yellow’ means ‘nonsense,’ right? Something impossible to understand?”

“No! No. It means…” Jenny bit her lip and looked at the floor, groping for words. “It means thing that cannot be said in our language.” She corrected herself. “I mean languages. All languages. Earth has not the words.”

The change of color is likely and a difference a very little difference is prepared, whispered Gertrude Stein in the back of Sophie’s head. This was almost helpful, but then she followed it with Sugar is not a vegetable.

“So the colonists who’re wearing red shirts…the reason they’re doing it is under the yellow? There’s a reason, but you can’t explain it because the concept doesn’t exist in English.”

Sophie made a noncommittal gesture. “Under the yellow, control, control.”

“What does ‘control’ signify?”

Jenny bit her lip again.

“We should get back to your thesis proposal,” Sophie said. “I notice you have a tendency to keep switching tenses…”

“Sophie?”

“What is it?”

“My roommate knows why Tony kill himself.”

“Why?”

Jenny shrugged. “Under the yellow.”

By the end of the week close to a hundred alien students had returned to the colony. Liz and Michael were gone from Sophie’s class for good. News crews filmed the students passing through the flimsy plastic barriers and disappearing into the small makeshift domes of the colony. No one – no one human, Sophie corrected herself – knew what it was like inside the domes. No human had ever been invited in.

Or had they? Sophie began watching her human students with curiosity. For the first time she noticed how much of their dialogue was peppered with nonsensical-sounding phrases. Sometimes, when gossiping, they even slipped into alien syntax, dropping verbs and using conjunctions in ways that, to Sophie’s ear, were pure cruelty to the English language.

Then the guns showed up.

This was another development Sophie learned from her students first. Ae Sook took out her laptop in class so everyone could follow the news, and other students followed suit. Soon the class was watching the same footage on eight different websites at once. At some point in the night, the aliens at the local colony had rolled out what appeared to be cannons of some kind. They circled the colony, their snub black snouts pointing at the National Guard encampment just outside. No aliens could be seen.

Sophie gave up on her introduction to silkscreening. There was no way she could keep her students’ attention. Most of them were texting nonstop.

“We should just blunt under, whether and,” said Tyler, who always partnered up with Jerome.

“Caution,” Jerome said, staring at his laptop.

“Control, control.”

“But we don’t know what they want,” Sophie said. “They won’t…they can’t tell us how to make things better.”

The two boys looked up. “They haven’t told us,” Jerome said. “That don’t mean they won’t tell us.”

“Might mean they can’t tell us,” Tyler said. “But control and.”

Sophie pulled up a chair. “Does ‘control’ mean…the problem is solvable?”

“Sorta,” Jerome said. “Like it was explained to me, some things always under the yellow, but some things under the yellow at control away. Um, I mean…” He searched for words that didn’t exist. “You don’t have an understanding now, but you could have an understanding later. That ain’t exactly right, but you get the picture?”

Sophie nodded. “But the colonists are setting up weapons now without giving us a chance to understand.”

“Yeah, well, I don’t know what the guys in the mushrooms are thinkin’, but one thing they’re pretty yellow about is, like, time.”

“They deal with time a little different,” Tyler said. “Like the way things will be in the future is part of the way things are now. That’s why it don’t translate. Under the yellow there, but.”

“You know,” Sophie said cautiously, feeling her fingers rub together in anxiety, “that’s more than adults who have been studying the colonists for ten years know about their language.”

Sophie became aware that the entire class was watching her. Their faces were blank.

They had lived with the aliens, shared food and housing and art supplies, picked up funny bits of the way they talked. At first it was just a game, a new form of slang to confound the faculty. Then they learned more, and the alien students learned more, and suddenly they were communicating.

And they never told us because we never asked, Sophie realized. We were too busy teaching them to learn from them.

Was that why the aliens had started sending their children to schools like NOAAD, not so they could learn, but so they could educate? Or were they as baffled by the sayings their kids brought home as the parents of the human students must be?

“Order five, order three, away then,” Ae Sook said. “Caution.”

All over the classroom, laptops flashed with updates. “Congress voted for military intervention,” Yuki said. “They’re taking it to U.N. now.”

“It’s too late for caution,” said Sophie. “Can somebody loan me a phone?”

And then they were in Sophie’s minivan, driving past all the Targets and White Castles on the way to the alien colony. They were crammed in shoulder to shoulder: Jermone and Tyler and Yumi and Jenny and Heather Tktkthk and a couple of alien guys from Jerome’s hall and Ae Sook still following the news on her laptop.

It had been a long time since college, but a fragment of poetry bubbled to the surface of Sophie’s mind. Bryan O. Wright, a Stanford student, had written it years ago for a contest in which a bunch of students had tried to come up with a meaning for the perfect meaningless sentence.

Inside the dark gnarled world of trunk and roots,
Cradled in the chemistry of cell and sap,
Colorless green ideas sleep furiously
In deep and dedicated dormancy,
Concentrating, conserving, constructing:
Knowing, by some ancient quantum law
Of chlorophyll and sun
That come the sudden surge of spring,
Dreams become reality, and ideas action.

“Control, control,” Heather Tktkthk said.

“Song of the hands and,” Jerome answered.

The leaders of the two species might listen, or they might not. But all the way to the compound, Sophie’s students and their friends talked, and, marvelously, she didn’t understand a single sentence.

About Shaenon K. Garrity
Shaenon K. Garrity is a writer and cartoonist best known for her webcomics Narbonic and Skin Horse. Her fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons and the anthology Machine of Death. She lives in Berkeley with a man, a cat, and a bird.
3 Comments
  1. Dran
    Dran01-09-2013

    This is just great. The aliens’ mentality is handled really well.

  2. Stewart Baker
    Stewart Baker09-03-2013

    Fantastic! And I knew the author’s name was familiar, but didn’t connect it to two of my favourite webcomics until I read her bio. Shame on me.

  3. Nonie
    Nonie09-08-2013

    Oh, I love this! Especially the undercurrent of hope.

    And it reminds me of several things:

    C.J. Cherryh writing about alien mindsets, and the way humans seem particularly adapted to “going native”–learning strange cultures until they think the same way, and thus being a bridge–though they may pay the price of never being fully trusted by either side….

    Ursula K. LeGuin writing about communication, and about the vast distances between every one of us, which may be no greater between us and aliens.

    And, on a lighter note, the utter humanness of our stubborn determination to take up challenges like making sense of colorless ideas sleeping furiously, or comparing apples and oranges, which my ex and I had a grand time with back when we were both in medieval studies:

    Me: “Oranges are more perfectly round, and thus closer to a Platonic ideal.” He: “But an apple is a single solid form, unlike the imperfect segments of an orange.”

    Me: “But an orange is golden, like the noblest metal and the Sun.” He: “But the apple is red and white, which are both pure colors, unlike the blended and lesser shade orange, and in addition red and white represent the carnal and the holy, the body and the soul.” (He’s actually agnostic, but we’re talking Medieval symbolism here!)

    Me: “But the golden orb of the Sun, as King of the Heavens and Bearer of Light, represents God himself!” (And I’m an atheist, but see above)

    He: “Ah, but the apple–the Apple was the instrument of Man’s Fall from Grace, and therefore led to Christ being born unto us to save us all!”

    At which point, I delightedly concede the game, since the Fortunate Fall trumps *everything* in that worldview.

    Apples, oranges, colorless green ideas, curing smallpox, going to the Moon–we’re a challenge-taking lot, us humans, and by and large I love us for it.

    Thanks for making my day!

    –Nonie

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