With the increase in the world’s population (more people are alive right this minute than have been alive throughout history) and the spread of the English tongue, the totality of original utterances has begun to drop to unprecedented lows. At one point when the total population of English speakers was close to two million in the sixteenth century, nearly any sentence uttered by a speaker had a good chance of having never been spoken before. To talk about your neighbor’s odors was to engage a bold, new linguistic enterprise. Now it has come to the point that we can only discus such matters using the recycled, previously uttered phrases of days gone by. Jason Johansson calculated that on May 11th, 2027, the last truly unique sentence will be uttered. Then, excluding lexical mutations and the introduction of technology-based concepts, all of the possible permutations of English will have been exhausted.
Nothing bored Johansson as much as the repetition of his aunt’s stories. On visits to his apartment, his aunt quickly entered her routines about the cruelty inflicted on her by her so-called friends, by the indignities inflicted on her by her co-workers. Tormentors all. Substitute a name here and there, the syntax of her routine remained the same. In school, the teachers inflicted a similar torture on poor Johansson’s sensitive nature. A haiku is nothing except a cookie-cutter path to fruit petals on a branch, transcendental clichés, and monotonous doggerel.
The world he calculated would soon fall into a dark age. All of the languages had been absorbed into English. No longer would there be those moments of liberation when English raided Latin or French or Spanish. The world would fall into a dark age of repetition after 2027 when even the liberating mechanisms of juxtaposition and irony could not save every spoken word from following the tiresome clichés, the repetitions of past originality, a beating to death of the jokes, the complete exhaustion of language.
Johansson relinquished language, settling on a crude sequence of gestures to declare his bodily necessities. He renounced language but retained the gesture for water, food, and toilet paper. Gradually his thoughts, even, emptied of language. When 2027 came, he sat on a chair in the sun on his damp lawn. The sun was warm, but he did not think that; he only thought that he did not desire movement.
This is a reprint of work originally published in First Intensity.
Matt Briggs is the author of five collections of short stories including The Remains of River Names and The Moss Gatherers. His first novel, Shoot the Buffalo, was a finalist for the 2006 Washington State Book Award and won the 2006 American Book Award. His second novel, The Strong Man, was published in 2010. The Publication Studio released a collection of stories (Virility Rituals of North American Teenage Boys) and a third novel (The Double E). His stories have appeared in Chicago Review, Word Riot, BULL, Spork, Birkensnake, Opium Magazine, ZYZYYVA, and elsewhere. His fiction has won a number of prizes, including The CityArtist Award from the City of Seattle, The Nelson Bentley Prize in Fiction from The Seattle Review and The Stranger’s Genius Award. He has an MA from the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins. He lives near Seattle.