Letter From Barsoomrnby Brian KirkpatrickrnLearning to Speak in OparrnWhen I was ten, I fell into the novels ofrnEdgar Rice Burrouglis. With him, I fledrnthe dinosaurs of Pellucidar in the centerrnof the earth; in the company of the anthropoidrnapes, I sought the fabled jewelsrnof Opar. I wondered at the hurtlingrnmoons of Barsoom, and gasped for oxygenrnin the thin air of that dying world.rnWhen a storm blew my hovercraft offrncourse in the east Atlantic, I crashed in anrnEngland dragged down into barbarismrnby a savage Great War that had draggedrnon for decades. One summer day, in arnbrief break from the books, my brotherrnand I even laid out a board and improvisedrnpieces so we could play the Martianrngame of chess the author had so lovinglyrndescribed.rnA Burroughs hero usually had to learnrna new language, and quickly, simplv tornsurvive. A lovely girl who could only bernwooed in her own tongue often gave arnspecial urgency to the task. This crucialrnprocess followed a simple pattern: Thernhero pointed to objects, gave the Englishrnword, then heard the foreign word in reply,rnhi the novels, this occupied a pagernor two at most: no fuss with case or gender,rnno grappling with irregular verbs.rnOnly someone who has struggled to learnrna new language as an adult can give thisrnfantasy the bitter smile it deserves.rnBurroughs’ books were written forrnboys, but in them he revealed a great,rndark truth of life: We all spend much ofrnour lives among people who don’t quiternspeak our language. Tweirty years out ofrnTexas, my accent still claims me everyrnlate night. For five years after college, Irnhad to fight not to use a slang that onlyrnthe residents of a particular dormitory,rnfrom a particular time, would have understood.rnWlien my son, heir to my badrnhabits, came home from three weeks ofrnan academic camp, his conversahon wasrndrenched with the idiosyncratic phrasesrnof another group of boys.rnWhen I teased an Argentine friendrnabout the rhythm and pronunciation ofrnher Spanish, the conversation hurled merninto an isolated, exotic world that remindedrnme of Burroughs. As « e ate icerncream in a mall, she described a BuenosrnAires that was as mysterious and fantasticrnas distant Barsoom. She told stories of hyperinflation,rnand the catastrophic rehirnrnof Juan Peron; of ice cream eaten on hotrnsummer nights at Christmastime; andrnbits of gossip about her countr’s dictator,rninvited to her wedding. She hadn’trnknown the desaparecidos, the vanishedrnvictims of Argentina’s “dirb,’ war” honoredrnby the outside world; she had beenrnraised among the people who had madernthem disappear. She thought of the soldiersrnresponsible for the disappearancesrnas fathers and husbands, and explainedrnthat some of their children were the orphansrnof the desaparecidos.rnIn the United States, we often speak ofrnLatin America as if it were inhabited by arnsingle, cohesive people, but history andrngeography make other groupings, limitedrnas those may also be, more reasonable.rnMusic, style, and celebrities usualK’ passrneasily among the coimtries that oncernconstituted the nation of Gran Colombia:rnVenezuela, the diminished Colombia,rnand the others in the northwestrncorner of South America. But the Argentinesrnmix poorh’ with the Gran Colombians,rnand the short, stockv CentralrnAmericans remain isolated from the rest.rnDonrinicans or Puerto Ricans mav revererna singer from Colombia’s Cali, but thernGran Colombians look down on thernranchero music and cowboy hats, boots,rnand silver belt buckles of northeni Mexico.rnArgentina and Uruguay, in turn, arernnearly a separate subcontinent. Formidablernbarriers isolate Argentina andrnUruguay: to the east and south, thernocean; to the nortli, the Brazilians, speakingrnnot Spanish but Portuguese, andrnParaguay, yet another special case; to thernwest, the highest mountains in die NewrnWorld. Most of the Argentines and theirrnneighbors on the Rio de la Plata are notrn/nestfzos —descendants of the Indiansrnand Spanish —as are so many of the GranrnColombians. Rather, they are descendantsrnof Germans, Italians, Spaniards,rnand Englishmen. In Argentina, an Italianrnsurname is more common than onernfrom Spain. My friend Fernando, a nativernof Mendoza at the base of the Andes,rnloves soccer, but the English game ofrnrugby is his favorite sport, and pictures ofrnhim in a blood)’ high-school jersev reflectrnthe depth of his passion. The Argentines’rnemotional distance from their neighborsrnis reflected in jokes: “Why do Chileansrnlove the tango? Because at the end of everyrntango, an Argentine dies.” “When isrnan Argentine being imfaithful? Wlien hernquits looking in the mirror.”rnA Burroughs hero from Colombia,rnfinding himself iu Argentina, might wantrnto start pointing and saving the names ofrnthings, hoping someone woidd teachrnhim die proper word. In their homes orrnon the radio, my Argentine friends heardrna Spanish unique to their coimtry, notrnthe language we Americans learn inrnschool. To me, their Spanish has the inflectionsrnand rhythms of Italian, not thosernof the Spanish spoken in Spain, or evenrnin Gran Colombia. My friend Cristinarnhad to be taught the niceties of internationalrnSpanish; when she reminiscedrnwifli another native of Buenos Aires, therntwo women rolled their eyes and groanedrnabout classes in “Castilian.” The presentrnperfect, a comfortable, familiar constructionrnfor the Gran Colombians as well asrnspeakers of English, exists in die far southrnin books but is rarciv used. The Argentinesrneven have a pronoun no otherrncountry uses: the informal you is renderedrnvos, not tu as in the rest of the Hispanicrnworld; and vos has a conjugationrnonly flie people of the southern countriesrnknow. Once my friend spoke to her littlerngirl using vos, then turned to me, paused,rnrefocused, and spoke to me using tu. Irncould all but hear the shift of gears: Irnspeak Colombian Spanish, not Argentine.rnBuenos Aires, with its many millionsrnand its history of tension witii flic countrv’side,rneven has its own dialect, hmfardo,rnwith verbs unknown outside of the pampasrnnations, and playful variants of Spanishrnnouns. In Buenos Aires one may bernbest seived by requesting feca, a reversalrnof die syllables of the Spanish cafe, whenrnordering coffee. (In Buenos Aires, I thinkrnthat I might point, say “steak” in Spanish,rnand hope for the best.) In recent years,rnhmfardo has spread throughout much ofrnthe countn’.rnA grammarian might consider thernSpanish of Argentina a sign of laziness,rnbut it is other tilings as well. In the farrnsouth, a new language flireatens to enterrnthe world, just as Spanish and Portuguese,rnneighboring languages with nornAndes to climb, once separated centuriesrnago. In the recent past, we have seenrntiercel}’ guarded borders melt, then be redrawn;rnthe Northern Italian struggles tornunderstand a Sicilian: Why not a newrnlanguage for a distinctive people?rnWe heirs to the language of Miltonrn36/CHRONICLESrnrnrn