Wednesday 20 November 2013

On language celebrations

A correspondent has sent me a very welcome present. Long-time readers of this blog will know that a recurring theme is my concern to get language, languages, and especially endangered and minority languages, the recognition they deserve. For a decade now, I've been arguing that the domain needs three things: a suitably prominent prize (a sort of Nobel Prize or Templeton Prize - but for language); a House of Languages in every major city (doing for languages what Natural History and Science Museums do for science and Art Galleries do for the arts); and, at an everyday level, the introduction of a language dimension to annual celebrations, such as Christmas, anniversaries, and birthdays.

I don't know of anything happening in relation to the first. There are several low-level national awards, but nothing yet on a major and truly international scale.

The second has had a chequered history. The front-runner was the Casa de les Llengües (House of Languages) in Barcelona, which was due to open soon, but the plug was pulled last year following the Spanish economic crisis. That was eight years of planning down the drain. I was chair of its international scientific advisory committee, and I can testify to the enormous amount of work and enthusiasm that the Catalans put into this project. They mounted a very successful touring exhibition on the languages of the Mediterranean, and they had even found a building and were beginning to refurbish it. I went to the opening. All history now. Maybe, when the economy improves...

In the meantime, other new 'museum' projects continue to bubble away, on a smaller scale. The National Museum of Languages in Maryland, USA - has big plans and is very active, but needs as many members as it can get to take these plans forward. 'Our mission is to inspire an appreciation for the magic and beauty of language'. Excellent. And several other language spaces already exist, such as in Germany, Belgium, Lithuania, Canada, and Iceland.

There are promising signs. Mundolingua opened in Paris last month. The Humbolt-Forum in Berlin is in its early stages of planning a major Welt der Sprachen (World of Languages). And people have written telling me of similar ideas in the Netherlands, Italy, and Greece. When the economy improves. The important thing in all these cases is the focus on language and languages in general, not just on an individual local or national language. Several countries of course have museums celebrating the history of their own language (e.g. in Hungary, Norway, Brazil).

Did you notice the place that was missing, in all of this? The UK. There have been a couple of successful local initiatives, but nothing national and permanent. I've written about the sorry saga of The World of Languages project elsewhere (see the article on 'A London Language Museum' on my website.

But to my present. I suggested to the UK's Association for Language Learning a few years ago that they have a competition to get schoolchildren to draw greetings cards celebrating languages, and that exercise resulted in some wonderful creations. It's the sort of thing any primary school can do - and why not secondary, too, with online creations? If only this kind of thing could be done professionally, I thought. And now it has.

Ilona Staples, a visual artist from Toronto in Canada, has produced a stunning collection of 28 cards for various occasions, and sent me a set. She calls the series 'Working Words'. They're a colourful and diverse collection, covering invitations, romance, birthdays, thanks, seasonal, congratulations, greetings, and sharing news. The languages are a glittering array. From Australia we have Wagiman, Mangarla, Gamilaraay, and Ngarluma. From Russia, Udege, Forest Enets, Negidal, and East Coast Yupik. From Brazil, Tariana, Cocama-Cocamilla, Kwazá, Kinikinau, and Chiquitano. From Canada and USA, Kwak'wala, Hän, Potawatomi, Eastern Aleut, Wyandot, Nuxalk, Sechelt, Tsek'ene, and Cayuga. Plus Gadaba (India) and Greater Andamanese (Andaman Is).

You want to congratulate someone? Why not in Tsek'ene - Shòwanjàh - in a joyful green? Or a 'love you' card in Mangarla - Nyunturnana pukarri mana ('I dreamt about you') - in a gentle blue? Or a happy birthday in Kwak-wala - ix kasalala xis ma'yudlamxdamus - in happy yellow?

You can see her work on her website, and obtain cards by writing to Ilona Staples.

I'm still waiting for a Google logo celebrating the two big days of the language calendar: International Mother Language Day is one, on 21 February. The European Day of Languages is another, on 26 September. One day, maybe...

1 comment:

Gwillim Law said...

The Museum of the Alphabet in Waxhaw, North Carolina, USA, deserves mention. It has been illustrating the history of writing systems for twenty years or more. It is a service of JAARS, a support organization for Bible translation.