Some days aboard the Lionstar were less boring than others. Citlally had learned one day, for example, that Mannarius was trying to learn English. It was strange to hear such a lion-like alien trying to wrap his voice around the Terran language, but he was making a valiant effort. Now and then they would turn off their translators and try to truly speak to one another.
“What about this word?” Mannarius asked, pointing a thick finger at a word on the page of one of the few Terran books that he owned.
The pages were worn, and Citlally had to squint to see the word clearly, but there it was: radical. She groaned and shook her head. “It says, ‘radical,'” she told him.
“‘Radical,'” he repeated. “But what does it mean?”
“Why not use the translator?”
Mannarius frowned. “I want to really understand it!”
Citlally scrunched up her mouth and gave a hopeless sigh. “Okay, sure. Can I have the books?” When he handed her the book, and read the part of the text that the word appeared in. She was relieved that is was not an article about free-radicals, which would have forced to explain a lot of scientific jargon that really required the translator.
“In this case, it means ‘cool,'” she told him at last.
“Cool…” he repeated, slowly, so that she could tell that he was mulling the word through his mind. “What is that?”
Citlally sighed. Thus was hopeless; he was too early in his learning to be able to function like this, and she was no language instructor. Was she even supposed to say that this word also meant several things?
“Well… when something is cool, a lot of people like it.”
“So it’s a good thing” Mannarius asked.
“A very good thing,” she agreed. “Well, to certain people, anyway.”
Citlally was already regretting having added any further details. “So… Sometimes only certain people think something is cool. Other people might think it’s dumb.”
“What is dumb?”
Citlally groaned and hid her face in her arms. When she looked up again, Mannarius’s expression was mournful. She could not help but feel guilty for having shamed his thirst for knowledge.
“Dumb is the opposite of radical,” she mumbled at last.
“Opposite. Completely different, like black and white.”
“Radical is black and white?”
“Just… turn on your translator.”
Mannarius reached behind his right ear and adjust his translator. “You have the strangest language,” he told her.
“Try Nahuatl,” she scoffed.
“Na– what?” he replied raising a brow.
Citlally chuckled. “That’s almost how you say it! Nahuatl it the language of my ancestors. I’m not even sure if it’s been programmed into most translators.”
“But this other language– English– I was told that it was more common on Earth, but it’s just ridiculous!”
“I hear that a lot,” Citlally admitted. “If you don’t grow up with English, learning it is no walk in the park.”
Mannarius stared at her for a moment. “That’s just what I mean! You have all of these phrases where the words just don’t make sense together, and you have four words for one thing, and one word can mean three things!”
“Radical is one of them,” she added with a wink.
“So what were you trying to say that it meant?”
“This text meant that something was cool or awesome, but it can also mean drastically different, plus there’s a scientific usage for it.”
He shook his head. “No wonder the translator required so much extra programming for English. How did that happen, though? Why do you have one word for different things?”
Citlally shrugged. “I’m not sure… I studied astronomy, not linguistics. Umm… maybe because English is so old? People start to use a word in different ways, and I guess it just evolved from there.”
Mannarius sighed and gazed out the window at the distant stars that sped by. “I doubt that I will know much English by the time we get you back to Earth.”
Citlally grinned at the opportunity his words gave her, and replied. “You’re radical either way, though!”