Arthur Tatum III speaks a language of his own. He invented it.
Mr. Tatum is the planet's only writer and speaker of Ebonese, "a language written by an Afro-American for the literal identification of all blacks born to ex-slaves in these United States."
Although the inspiration for Ebonese came two decades ago, Mr. Tatum said, the actual work of constructing it has consumed thousands of hours over roughly seven years.
The language has a 50,000-word vocabulary that fills 40 tablets -- in Mr. Tatum's handwriting. But, at his expense, he's printed part of an Ebonese-English dictionary. The "A's," from "parsakae" (abandon) to "oci" (ax), take up 36 pages.
Grammar and pronunciation rules are so simple, Mr. Tatum said, that "a second-grader can learn Ebonese quite quickly." Words end in accordance with their part of speech in a sentence. For example, verbs end in "ae" if they are in the present tense, in "oe" if they're in the past tense. A consonant never changes its sound; "G" is always "g" as in "go," never as in the English "George" or "gnome." Adjectives end in "us."
Happy New Year! is "Jovius Venus Jira!"
Why would anyone want to invent a language? And what inspired Mr. Tatum?
A 59-year-old jazz pianist, he said the inspiration came in dreams about 20 years ago. In the 1980s, after he had arrived in Baltimore for treatment of glaucoma at the Johns Hopkins University -- he is partially blind -- he became seriously depressed.
"I felt like I was in a rowboat in the middle of the ocean with no oars, waiting for the tide to come and push me somewhere," he said. "I prayed. I really prayed. I thought about the dreams I'd had earlier. I knew I didn't have the wherewithal to write a language on my own, but I remembered something my mother had told me: When you're drifting ask Him for help. I've been getting it ever since."
So Mr. Tatum's language is not rooted in Africa, such as Swahili with its Arabic roots. Rather, according to Ebonese's inventor, it's "rooted in revelation, and I continue to receive about 25 words per week."
Another inspiration, Mr. Tatum said, was his father, the noted jazz musician Art Tatum who died in 1956 when Arthur III was 21. "He put everything he was, everything he knew, into his music," said Mr. Tatum. "I've done the same thing with my language."
In 1986, city officials refused to allow Mr. Tatum to perform in a city-sponsored "Jazz for Jesus" concert until he proved his parentage. He played anyway -- and continues to insist that he is Tatum's son, born in South Carolina to a woman who never married the jazz great. "I knew my father better than I've ever known anyone" for a period of about five years in the early 1950s, Mr. Tatum said last week, "and he did for my life what Christians say the Gospel does for them."
Mr. Tatum has approached city schools Superintendent Walter G. Amprey and officials at Coppin State College about training students in Ebonese. He expects the language to "take off like an unfortunate forest fire," with thousands of sixth-graders speaking and reading it within 10 years.
He thus joins a select group of language inventors in a world in which the number of languages is declining as older people die and youngsters are assimilated in larger cultures. "The number [of languages] usually given is about 5,000," said David W. Lightfoot, chairman of the department of linguistics at the University of Maryland College Park. "It depends on one's definition, but there's no question it's declining. Some languages are down to one or two speakers."
There's Nadsat, a combination of English and Russian created by Anthony Burgess, author of "Clockwork Orange," for the "droogs," a gang of hoodlums living in a drug-saturated culture of the future.
And Klingon, the language of the warlike empire of "Star Trek." A group of scholars set out early this year to translate the Bible into Klingon but ran into a problem: There's no Klingon word for (or concept of) God.
Not so Ebonese. In fact, said Mr. Tatum, Ebonese is divinely inspired -- and divinely prophesied. He cited the third chapter of Zephaniah in the Old Testament: "For then will I turn to the people a pure language, that they may all call upon the name of the Lord, to serve Him with one consent."
Lines are gone
A few weeks ago we described how the "information superhighway" has made it easier for professors and students around the world to conduct research and carry on scholarship without leaving their offices.
Hoke Smith, president of Towson State University, reminded us that the computer is making life easier for students, too, in practical ways -- registering, getting financial aid, learning of examination schedules and grades.
Gone will be the long gymnasium lines that generations have known at course registration time. Students will register and then pay by credit card over the phone.