A language so precise and secret

November 24, 2015

margaret atwood poems 1976-1986 virago book coverI recently read Margaret Atwood’s Poems 1976–1986, a collection published by Virago Press. While doing so I tweeted an excerpt on her birthday, before I knew it was her birthday: a happy synchronicity. Below are some lines that deal explicitly with language and words.

From ‘Four Small Elegies’:

A language is not words only,
it is the stories
that are told in it,
the stories that are never told.

This verse echoes something Muriel Rukeyser once wrote (‘The universe is made of stories, / not of atoms’), but with a lurch into loss. Atwood’s ‘Two-Headed Poems’ returns repeatedly to the subject of a language’s decline or supersession by another:

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Languages live like bread and love

June 27, 2011

Daniel Everett is best known for his controversial research into the Pirahã language, which he popularised in a book called Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes (steadily crawling up my to-read mountain.) The post title is a phrase adapted from Carlos Fuentes, which Everett used in a talk titled “Endangered Languages and Lost Knowledge”:

[T]he general principle that makes languages alike or different is very simple. You talk like who you talk with, so if you talk with somebody all the time, you’ll talk like them, and if you don’t talk to them, eventually you won’t talk like them at all. So, languages live like bread and love, by being shared with others.

But languages die also, and languages die in one of two ways. First way is that the speakers actually die, and so if the speakers of a language die out the language is going to die . . . . Another reason languages die is because the speakers stop speaking – speakers lived but they shifted to another language. So, the languages that are gone, usually won’t come back.

The full lecture, delivered at the Long Now Foundation, is on Fora.tv, where you can download the video, audio, and not-very-accurate transcript. It’s a fascinating discussion of a remarkable language and it gives an idea of what we can lose when a language dies. [Edit: Here’s a short clip.]

For more on Everett’s work and the Pirahã language, I recommend this post at Language Log and Everett’s old page at Illinois State University.

[Edit: Unfortunately, the latter link has disappeared. See his new site, Dan Everett Books, and also Wikipedia’s page.]