Reg was pleased that, finally, he was now retired from his job in the Royal Mail Central Delivery Office in Birmingham. He didn’t miss the repetitive work, nor his colleagues in the office, with whom he’d never been friends. His pension, while modest, was sufficient for his purposes. His needs, like his life as a whole, were simple and relatively inexpensive. Two weeks a year in an inconspicuous hotel on the Solway Firth were, for instance, holiday enough for him. He enjoyed a quiet bachelor existence at home, uninterrupted except for occasional visits by his older sister, Lilian, who lived in Newcastle.
If Reg had one slight extravagance, it was the amount he spent on books about language. Maybe it was the years spent deciphering the addresses sent to or from far-flung countries that had sparked his interest in the great variety of languages spoken in the world. He’d never tried to learn any of these languages himself and, over time, it was no longer this or that language – Danish, Urdu or whatever – that interested him, but language itself. On his bookshelves there now stood a respectable number of works – mainly basic introductions - on the psychology, sociology and philosophy of language.
It was after reading one introduction to the philosophy of language that Reg decided what he would devote himself to in retirement. This book contained a short chapter on the Austrian philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s, ‘private language argument’. Reg was not confident, he had to admit, that he understood exactly what the philosopher was arguing. But the conclusion seemed to be that there couldn’t be a language that only one person was able to understand – a private language of his or her own.
At first, Reg thought this sounded silly. What about the secret code that, as a 5-year old boy, he'd devised so that his mother and sister wouldn’t understand the diary he was keeping? But then Reg realised that this wasn’t a language that no one else could decipher, since this is precisely what his mother actually did by the time she’d got to page 3 of the diary. She’d worked out that Reg had replaced ‘a’ by ‘b’, ‘b’ by ‘c’, ‘c’ by ‘d’ … and so on. Still, Reg reflected, surely someone might invent a language that no one else could possibly decipher – a bit like Linear B, but much more difficult.
So this was the task Reg set himself: to invent just such a ‘private language’. He called it ‘Vlungpo’. To guarantee that no one would understand it, Reg created a whole series of obstacles. For one thing, the sounds of Vlungpo would, like that very name, be unattractive, so that few people would be drawn to learn it. It was not, certainly, going to be, like Italian, a bella lingua. Next, Vlungpo would contain far more independent words than any other language. This was achieved, for example, by dispensing with prefixes, suffixes and other devices used to form longer words from stems. So, in Vlungpo, the terms for pleasure, displeasure, pleasurable, please, unpleasant and so on bore no resemblance to each other, and had to be learned entirely separately.
Again, Vlungpo contained no plural endings, and no interrogative and imperative forms. To convey that more than one dog was in the garden, the speaker would have to repeat the term for ‘dog’ according to the number of the animals there. Imperative utterances differed from indicative ones by being barked out, loudly and aggressively. Verbs differed from their corresponding nouns by being spoken backwards, with tenses being indicated by an appropriate pitch of the voice.
Reg also borrowed several devices from real languages, like Tibetan, Mongolian and Bantu, that are virtually unpronounceable by Europeans. The term for ‘wall’, for instance, sounded vaguely like ‘ngroxf’, but spoken with the clicking sound of speakers of various African Khoisan languages. Other sounds resembled the guttural noises made by Tuvan throat singers of Central Asia.
A feature of Vlungpo that Reg was especially proud of was that the correct terms to use altered according to time and place. For example, ‘ngroxf’ only refered to a wall if spoken (a) during even-numbered weeks of the year and (b) while the speaker was not in an upstairs room. During odd-numbered weeks, or while in one’s first floor bedroom, the proper term for ‘wall’ would be ‘psqloq’.
Reg spent six years perfecting his private language, continually adding further obstacles in the way of another person’s making sense of Vlungpo. By this time, he had become fluent in the language, by dint of resolute practice in speaking it in the privacy of his own home. Indeed, so accustomed to speaking Vlungpo was he that there were some occasions, embarrassing to him to recall, when he inadvertently spoke it to other people. For example, the postman who, during a Covid lockdown, rang the door bell to deliver two parcels and was greeted by Reg barking out the noises ‘Sgujfla sqwadc jdlu jdlu’ – ‘Leave the parcels there!’. Then there was the time when he upset the young woman at a supermarket check-out. When she said ‘Have a nice day’, he replied by clicking his tongue three times and belching out a sound like ‘gkoghz’ – ‘And you too’.
Generally, however, Reg was circumspect and confined Vlungpo within the walls of his house. Nor did he ever mention his invention to anyone, including his sister, despite her insistent questions about what, having retired, he was now doing with himself. He felt no desire to boast: it was satisfaction enough to feel certain that he had refuted the Austrian philosopher. There could be private languages. He’d just created one.
It was on a cold December day three months after the completion of his invention that Reg decided to take a walk in the local park. Absorbed in the recitation of some Vlungpo verbs, he failed to notice a patch of dark ice on the pavement. The slip caused him to stagger into the road, where his head was hit hard by the huge wing mirror of a passing camper van. He lost consciousness immediately and suffered two fractures.
Three days later, after surgery in the Queen Elizabeth hospital, Reg opened his eyes, to find himself looking into the smiling face of a senior nurse.
‘How are you feeling, my love?’ she gently asked, taking hold of his hand.
‘Sklorg szdrug,’ replied Reg, in an attempt to ask her where he was.
‘Sorry, love, I didn’t catch that.’
‘Sklorg szdrug,’ Reg repeated, this time loudly.
The nurse checked the name of the man in the bed. ‘Reginald Blunt.’ It sounded very English, so why was he speaking a foreign language?
‘I’ll be back in a moment, love,’ she said. As she walked towards the exit of the ward, she could hear ‘Sklorg szdrug’ being repeatedly shrieked behind her.
It was two days later, and after several attempts to communicate with Reg, that two consultants – the man who’d operated on him, and a woman who specialised in brain damage – met to discuss this puzzling case. The attempts by the doctors – and Reg’s sister, too - to get him to speak, or respond to, English had completely failed. What came out of his mouth, instead, was a flow of unintelligible noises.
It was agreed that if this was aphasia, due to serious damage to the left side of Reg’s brain, it was the most severe case of language loss the consultants had encountered. Aphasic patients forgot words, but not a whole language. Each of them had also heard of a couple of peculiar cases where brain-damaged bilinguals had forgotten many words of one of the languages in which they were fluent, but not of the second one. But these people had only forgotten fragments of a language, and anyway, the medics wondered, did the noises Reg made – including the barks, clicks, and falsetto shrieks – belong to any known language?
‘If it is a language, I’d go for some strange Scandinavian dialect,’ observed the woman consultant. ‘The Saami in Lapland make some pretty odd sounds, especially when singing their joik songs. Maybe they have some neighbours who speak something even weirder.’
They agreed to invite a distinguished Professor of Scandinavian Languages from the University of Edinburgh to listen to Reg and try to identify the dialect. The Professor readily accepted the invitation, flew to Birmingham the following day, and sat by Reg’s bedside for an hour listening to the patient’s tirade of Vlongpo utterances.
‘It’s not Scandinavian, certainly, not any kind of Nordic language,’ he told the two consultants. ‘If it’s anything at all, my guess is it’s something Central or East Asian. But how on earth could he have learned it?’
The Professor agreed to spend some more time with Reg and to record his utterances on a mobile phone. The patient obliged by muttering away in Vlongpo, although more to himself than to any audience. The Professor then sent the MP3 recording to a colleague he’d met at conferences. She taught at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, specialising in Mongolian and related languages. Her email response was almost instant.
‘This is not like any language I’ve ever encountered. Either he’s a psychic, communicating in the language of some lost civilisation – Atlantis or whatever – or, more probably, he’s crazy. I can’t find any kind of structure in these mad noises. Some wires have got crossed in his brain, I reckon, and he’s uttering gibberish. This is a case for you doctors, not a linguist like me.’
While bridling at the terms ‘crazy’, ‘crossed wires’, and ‘gibberish’, the psychologist at the Queen Elizabeth to whom Reg’s case was then refered endorsed the opinion that the poor man was no longer of sound mind. The question now was what to do with him. Since the days immediately after regaining consciousness, Reg no longer shrieked or behaved at all aggressively. His Vlongpo utterances were now generally soft, almost sotto voce. A psychiatric hospital seemed the wrong place for him, it was judged, and so did a care home. A home wouldn’t be able to give him the kind of care he needed, and he’d be sure to upset the other residents by blurting out ugly and nonsensical noises. On the other hand, being unable to communicate except by clumsy gestures, Reg clearly couldn’t go back to living by himself.
When the hospital team met with Reg’s sister, Lilian, and explained to her their predicament, she immediately offered to take Reg to Newcastle to live with her. She’d already given this some thought, she explained. Her flat had a spare room and she had all the time in the world to look after him, now that her husband was dead. The team didn’t take long to decide that this was the best solution. Reg would go to live in Newcastle and, once he had settled in, a speech therapist would visit him regularly with the aim of helping him to re-learn English. Once he had gone, the consultants decided, they would publish a career enhancing joint paper on Reg’s case in The Lancet.
Six months after his accident, Reg moved into the room that Lilian had prepared for him in her ground-floor flat in the Jesmond area of Newcastle. The room was to become his world. He prefered to eat his meals there, rather than join his sister in the sitting room, and he never went out alone after the occasion when he yelled out some utterances in Vlongpo to a startled man who had asked him the way to the Metro station. On warm, dry days he would, though, sometimes go with his sister to Jesmond Dene Park and sit with her on a bench, listening uncomprehendingly to her remarks on the birds and the trees.
Lilian soon gave up the attempt to teach Reg the English words for, say, sausages and eggs, or toilet and bathroom. What limited communication she had with her brother was through gestures and pictures. She would, for example, draw two sausages and a fried egg and show it to Reg. If he nodded, these were what she would cook for his lunch. The speech therapist from the Queen Victoria Hospital was no more successful than Lilian on the several occasions he visited Reg.
Fortunately for Reg, the FIFA World Cup began a month after his arrival in Newcastle. With the sound switched off, since he could not understand anything the commentators or pundits were saying, he would sit for hours watching the games. Sometimes, when a game ended, he would watch it again on playback.
Lilian, meanwhile, would spend hours on the laptop computer that a removal van had brought from Reg’s house in Birmingham along with other possessions of his. She had never used a computer before but, with the help of a neighbour, she became – to her surprise – reasonably competent within a few weeks. Surfing the internet, looking up dinner recipes, seeing what was for sale on e-bay … these and much more gave a new impetus to Lilian’s life, as well as respite from caring for her silent brother. She was soon confident enough, even, to start going through the large number of Reg’s documents stored on the PC. Perhaps among these she would find something that would trigger Reg’s memory, including that of his native language.
With the World Cup ended, Reg was forced to watch programmes that barely interested him. Cartoons – especially the old American ones like ‘Tom and Jerry’ – were the best, for they didn’t require any understanding of things being said. When he was not watching the TV, Reg quietly muttered Vlongpo phrases to himself. He even decided to compose some poems in the language, but here he was hampered by its sounds, which had been intended by him to deter anyone from wanting to learn the language. Unappealing and barely pronounceable sounds like ‘shgrudvi’ and ‘ugugxba’ would be hard to weave into an attractive poem. Still, reflected Reg, at least he did have this language – a language of his very own.
It was this comforting reflection that prevented Reg from feeling consistently depressed. The inability to communicate with the rest of the world was, of course, distressing. But he knew he had achieved something that, perhaps, no other person in history had done – created an entirely private language. He’d proved wrong that Austrian philosopher whose name he could no longer remember.
It was now a year since the accident, and Christmas was approaching. Perhaps this was why Lilian was so animated and cheerful. When not at her, or rather Reg’s, laptop, she was busily preparing dishes, wrapping presents, writing cards and decorating a plastic Christmas tree. Much of the time she was whistling familiar carols or popular songs like ‘Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas’.
On Christmas Day itself, she cooked a traditional lunch and sat Reg down at the small dining table in the sitting room. Before she brought in the food, she handed Reg a brightly wrapped parcel containing a cashmere sweater. He opened it, smiled and thanked her, feeling guilty that he had bought her nothing.
‘But I’ve got a much better Christmas present for you!’ Lilian announced. ‘Something much more important.’
Reg looked at her, unable of course to understand what she was saying. She then stood up, took a deep breath, and with great concentration finally spoke:
The pronunciation was not accurate, but Reg was still able to recognise the Vlungpo for ‘Merry Christmas!’. Before he could say anything himself, his sister continued speaking. In bad, halting, yet intelligible, Vlungpo, she explained that for six months she had been learning the language from Reg’s computer. She’d located most of the relevant documents – a lexicon of Vlungpo terms, instructions on pronunciation, a list of rules for when and where terms could be properly used, passages with their translations into English, and so on.
She concluded by hugging Reg, taking his hands in her own, and saying, this time in English, that he would no longer be isolated. Someone else – his own sister – would be able to talk to him in the language he’d invented. And who knows? Maybe she could teach other people to understand Vlongpo.
Reg returned her gaze, not with a smile, but with a look of horror.
‘Ygytvo!’ he muttered – ‘Failed!’
‘Ygytvo!’ he repeated, with tears in his eyes.