I don’t get to use the word “hurtle” enough, but I think it’s appropriate for this week: I feel as though I am hurtling through it. And its homophone “hurdle” can work its way in, too: there are many hurdles over which to hurtle. My hope is that the weekend will be not a cement road block, but rather a balmy pool, into which I can plunge and float about. Do you know, I’ve gotten up at 8:00 am or earlier for the last seventeen days in a row? Unaccountably disgusting. My body and brain have forgotten what it’s like to wake up when I feel like it, but I hope Saturday will be a re-discovery of that joy…
This week: “the omniglot’s delight“
Most of you know that I am a linguist at my day-job, more or less. I’d like a little more of the actual working with language than the bureaucratic bullshit I often have to slog through, but we’d all like a little less of that, I think. Today I was reading an article in this month’s National Geographic about endangered languages, which made me heavy-hearted and fascinated at the same time, as I often feel when reading about the topic. It’s one I’ve written a couple poems about before, because their situations are (to me) the essence of bittersweet.
So that’s something we’re going to investigate today. Your mission, should you to choose to accept it, is to write about an endangered language. I don’t expect that you have linguistic training to take this on, but let me give you a few pointers as to what constitutes an endangered language:
- it does not have official recognition by some kind of governing body, either in the legal sense or just the cultural sense
- fewer children speak it than adults, if they speak it at all
- there are little to no media to support it (TV, radio, music, etc.)
- a comparatively small population speaks it (note, comparatively: there are languages in India that have hundreds of thousands of speakers, but are endangered because they’re drowned out)
You don’t have to travel far afield, or even out of developed countries, to find one which interests you. Various Native American languages are nestled in the pockets of the US and Canada; Breton slowly withers in western France, and Romansh in Switzerland; the indigenous Ainu people of Japan are down to a few hundred speakers of their language. Here’s a Wikipedia list that will provide a good jumping-off point if you aren’t familiar with any, or if you want to do one you’ve never heard of before. (I’m just going to say this once: don’t pick Pirahã. I am so sick of people talking about Pirahã as “that language without numbers”, just because it got a book and a BBC article… now it’s famous for all the wrong reasons. I love it too, but guys, there are other languages out there with equally cool features. Try Nuxálk, which can have thirteen consonants in a row and call it a sentence, or a language like Martu-Wangka, which has only three “channels” of color.)
You have a couple of options for how to write about this. Let me give you two easy ones from the start: write from a meta-perspective about your thoughts/feelings on the situation of the language in question, or try some kind of narrative that firmly places the language in its environment. Either way, you’re going to have to do a bit of research, so make liberal use of Wikipedia, Google, the library (especially an academic library, if you have access to one), etc. Try to find at least one curious fact about the language that you can share, or maybe even work into the structure of the poem: if a language has only three color words, talk about various objects in terms of color, using only those three. (A caveat: when that happens in a language, it is usually in a specific order, so that the colors are best translated as something like “warm”, “cool”, and “bright”. Check out this page.)
What I would not recommend doing is trying to take on the persona of a speaker if you can help it, unless you’re sure it won’t touch on cultural, social, and political themes best avoided. (But maybe you do want to touch on those: I can’t say what your experience is.)
To get a little more in-depth, try to find some actual texts and, best of all, recordings of the language. There are cool sites like FirstVoices that archive recordings of tales and songs (in this case, for indigenous tribes of Canada), and certainly you can find clips on YouTube (from the film The Linguists of nothing else). See if you can do a bit of description of the language based on those sounds, and if you’re feeling adventurous, the grammar. Think about languages where verbs come at the very end versus the very beginning: how will that structure narrative differently? Or languages where adjectives function like verbs (such as Chinese or Japanese): what does that say about description? When we do poetry, so often we are pulling little feats of translation, turning English into something not-quite-English, that shares something in common with another language. Try to find an aspect the tongue you choose that you can poetize English into resembling.
I’ll pop two stanzas from a poem I wrote a while ago, “On the Extinction of the Ubykh Language”, for the kind of idea I’m going with here:
We sang in the language of the mountains,
tongues crashing on teeth,
vowels bubbling to be heard,
as tenacious as sulfur springs
between the sharp shock of consonants,
heavy boulders of sound.
And we sang in the speech of rivers,
throats thawing and rolling liquid air
over precipitous lips,
rising and falling with the rhythm
of earthquakes, of gunfire,
with the syncopation of seasons.
It’s a language full of consonants (eighty-three, I think), which was spoken in the Caucasus highlands. You can see where I went with it.
Poets, it is often said, have a certain duty to social consciousness; equally, it is well-known that they have a certain duty to words. So why not combine the two, educate yourself a little bit on the topic, and see how it resonates with you? (And if you really want to dazzle me, and you’re a speaker of an endangered language, you can always write a poem in that language…) I’m hoping that people choose disparate places and experiences to build their poem, so that when we come back to share them, everyone will educate each other a bit more on these things. Happy writing!
(Since this Reverie is going up so late, the next one will be up a tad later, maybe Monday. Then, by next Saturday, I’ll try to have everything in sync again.)