The Beauty of Pravic Verbs

“Still working?” she said as she passed.

“Do you ever get a break?” he said, fifteen minutes later.

Things like this happen for two reasons. I sit and type next a place where a lot of people walk. This of it as a front porch, except that people walk between the porch, where I am, and the house. And then, they don’t really know what I am doing. And it is hard to tell them. [You see the basic structure of the “porch” in the picture below.]

Ursula LeGuin and I have a favorite book of hers. It is The Dispossessed, in which an unassimilable minority is shipped off to a habitable moon and set up as a separate civilization on the condition that they never come back. The people on the planet Urras are “archists;” the people they sent away to the moon, Anarres, are anarchists. You see the problem. [1]

Because the anarchists were very wise people, they understood that the language they all spoke had the values of archism buried in it, so to begin a culture on a new basis, they would have to invent a new language. Which they did. They called it Pravic.

In Pravic, the same verb means both work and play. The founding linguists wanted a language that would enable them to say that meaningful work was restorative in the same way that playful behavior was restorative. The also invented a noun to refer to meaningless routine work; they called it kleggich.

If English has a verb that meant working/playing, it is the word I would use to tell passersby what I am doing on my “front porch.” As you can see by the picture, the front porch is like a long lobby on the other side of the hall from our apartment. When we first moved in, I referred to it as “an extra living room;” then as a parlor (where one would parlez). But my daughter, Dawne, who lives in New Jersey and knows how front porches are used, said, “That’s not a living room. That’s a front porch.” And so it has been, in our family’s language, ever since.

I write three kinds of things out there on my front porch. I keep up a correspondence with friends; I write a blog; I write materials for one or the other of the three bible studies—two secular, one Christian—I teach. The really odd thing about that combination of working/playing activities is that what I write gravitates back and forth from one medium to another. Some years ago, for example, I wrote a series of posts on the steps that seemed to me to be either named or implied in the “redemption” of an Israelite from slavery. Those four “posts” are now the centerpiece of a course on the history of the idea of redemption that I will be teaching to one of the secular Bible studies this spring. Because I have friends who are interested in that idea, I ship it off to them, counting on them to act as critics and editors—coauthors, really, although I wouldn’t say that to them.

That array of things—the subjects, the settings, the dialog with passersby—are why I really couldn’t settle on working/playing and why I could use a really good Pravic verb, which LeGuin never actually names. Last week, for example I wrote the current installment in a course I am offering at our church—this is the religious course, not either of the two secular ones—on how Matthew handles Mark’s account of the life of Jesus. The image I am pushing (I know it is anachronistic, but it is clear) is that Matthew is sitting at his desk writing his gospel. He is cribbing substantial parts of Mark’s account in the process and he has that account there on the desk.

He adds some things, he subtracts some things, he changes the order of other things, he tidies up the grammar quite a bit. In last week’s session, for instance, we dealt with Mark’s account of the healing of the woman who had “an issue of blood.” In the middle of the crowd, she managed to touch some part of Jesus’ robe and was instantly cured. Jesus stopped on the spot and said, “Who touched me?” In Mark, the disciples treated that as a dumb question. Who would muscle through a Middle Eastern bazaar crowd and ask who had touched him? Matthew has no use at all for that kind of attitude toward Jesus, so he just drops that whole element of the story. The woman comes up; there is no crowd; Jesus asks no dumb questions; the woman is healed. End of story. But note that you have to start with Mark to see that Matthew has dropped anything at all.

We paired that story with a similar one, just a little later in both accounts, in which Jesus healed the demon-possessed child of a gentile woman. Again, Matthew alters the account he gets from Mark, but both accounts have Jesus referring to the woman as a “dog”—not one of the children of the house, who would be Jews. Even thought I knew the story, I prepared myself for the woman to take issue with the ethnic slur. [2]

But that made her the second woman in this session who “had an issue”—think back to the first woman—so I called the essay, “Two women with issues.” And then I tried to get back to work, but I had to stop from time to time because I just couldn’t seem to stop laughing.

At that point, one of my neighbors wandered by and asked, “What are you working on?” And that made me laugh even harder. There’s never a Pravic verb around when you need it.

[1] It is actually two problems. The archists problem is how to get rid of those who will not admit the legitimacy of force by the state. The anarchists problem is to built a functioning culture in which there is not state to enforce cooperation.
[2] In fact, if you don’t know the story, she accepted the slur at face value and presented her issues with the implications Jesus had drawn. The two issues, as I now see them are: a) is there a necessary temporal delay between feeding the children and feeding the dogs and b) does feeding the dogs necessarily take anything from the children? Real issues, thoughtfully (and successfully) presented.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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