Learning to Speak in Opar

Letter From Barsoom

When I was ten, I fell into the novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs. With him, I fled the dinosaurs of Pellucidar in the center of the earth; in the company of the anthropoid apes, I sought the fabled jewels of Opar. I wondered at the hurtling moons of Barsoom, and gasped for oxygen in the thin air of that dying world. When a storm blew my hovercraft off course in the east Atlantic, I crashed in an England dragged down into barbarism by a savage Great War that had dragged on for decades. One summer day, in a brief break from the books, my brother and I even laid out a board and improvised pieces so we could play the Martian game of chess the author had so lovingly described.

A Burroughs hero usually had to learn a new language, and quickly, simply to survive. A lovely girl who could only be wooed in her own tongue often gave a special urgency to the task. This crucial process followed a simple pattern: The hero pointed to objects, gave the English word, then heard the foreign word in reply, hi the novels, this occupied a page or two at most: no fuss with case or gender, no grappling with irregular verbs. Only someone who has struggled to learn a new language as an adult can give this fantasy the bitter smile it deserves.

Burroughs' books were written for boys, but in them he revealed a great, dark truth of life: We all spend much of our lives among people who don't quite speak our language. Twenty years out of Texas,...

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