Monday 8 January 2007

On being artistic about language death

A comment sent in response to my blog 'On editing encyclopedias' raises the topic of dying languages, which is so important that it deserves a separate post. I reproduce most of the comment here:

'I’m a writer from India and have written over a hundred short stories. Recently, I read your book ‘The Language Revolution’... have been reading a lot of your books ever since. In ‘The Language Revolution’, you have made an observation: though language death is a serious social tragedy, not many artists have reflected upon it as they have on other catastrophes. You have said that except for some poems or an odd article, there isn’t a single drama or novel or even a short story... However, while reading this, I was glad that I had already written a short story about a dead language. The premise and the claims are all purely imaginary, but through the story I wish to emphasize that with every language that dies, mankind is losing at least one vital message.'

I'm always very happy to read material on this neglected topic, and I wish more were available. For a UNESCO conference in 2003 I collected as much material as I could find to back up a keynote paper called 'Crossing the great divide: language endangerment and public awareness', and I managed to track down a couple of dozen pieces, mainly poems, which is not much at all really. I include references to some of them in the paper. (You can read the paper on my website at click on the category 'Language Death & Diversity' and you'll find it under 'Articles'.)

An important point to note is that the neglect I refer to in The Language Revolution, and which is the theme of the paper, is in relation to material on language endangerment and death in general, not on individual languages. There is of course a great deal of imaginative writing about particular languages - I know of several poems, stories, songs, and so on which focus on the situation of Welsh, for instance, and there is bound to be similar material on other languages. Brian Friel's play Translations, in relation to Irish, comes to mind. But what we don't have much of is writing in which authors step back from their own language situation and reflect on the world crisis. My correspondent suggests that his story does do this, and that's crucial.

I don't know of any novels on this subject, but the other genres mentioned have actually been exploited, albeit minimally. There is David Malouf's short story 'The only speaker of his tongue', for example, and for plays Harold Pinter's Mountain Language and my own Living On. I give some quotes and observations in the UNESCO paper. But my point applied to the arts in general, not just to the textual arts. I don't know of any musical pieces on the topic, for instance. Isn't it a perfect subject for Philip Glass? Do you know of any paintings? Or sculptures, apart from Rachel Berwick's 'living sculpture' that I allude to in Language Death? Or - for this is a topic that is bigger than the 'high arts' - pop songs or raps? My most profound hope is that the artists of the world (in the broadest sense) will take this subject on board. It is, as I argue in the paper, the only real way of getting the subject of language endangerment into the hearts of the public at large.


  1. Language Death represented by artists? In terms of literature I can see a great deal of potential and perhaps in music as well. I'm sure one could knock up a decent drama on the subject if one were so inclined. Precisely what do you mean when you refer to art and the arts?

  2. In furtherance to my previous comment, perhaps you could lead the way in this. In all seriousness, you are somewhat of an authority on the subject and could probably do some decent justification to the subject. Blog us a language death poem, please.

  3. Take a look at the paper I mentioned, which gives a full account of the kind of arts involved. I intend the broadest possible definition. The point I'm making is that artists, of whatever kind, have largely neglected the subject, presumably because they don't know about it, and yet it is full of potential for artistic expression. And most linguists, who do know about the subject, have ignored the artistic medium. I did precisely what you suggest in the 1990s, writing the play 'Living On', but the issue would benefit greatly from having professional playwrights take it up. Or any artists. I've been hammering away at this plea for several years now, but not so far with much to report by way of results.

    Incidentally, the play is available for production by anyone who cares to put it on (e-copy from me). Any profit made from such a production should go to The Foundation for Endangered Languages.

    Here's one poem from my small collection. It's in W S Merwin's book 'The Rain in the Trees', and it's called 'Losing a language':

    A breath leaves the sentences and does not come back
    yet the old still remember something that they could say

    but they know now that such things are no longer believed
    and the young have fewer words

    many of the things the words were about
    no longer exist

    the noun for standing in mist by a haunted tree
    the verb for I

    the children will not repeat
    the phrases their parents speak

    somebody has persuaded them
    that it is better to say everything differently

    so that they can be admired somewhere
    farther and farther away

    where nothing that is here is known
    we have little to say to each other

    we are wrong and dark
    in the eyes of the new owneres

    the radio is incomprehensible
    the day is glass

    when there is a voice at the door it is foreign
    everywhere insread of a name there is a lie

    nobody has seen it happening
    nobody remembers

    this is what the words were made
    to prophesy

    here are the extinct feathers
    here is the rain we saw