LISTEN UP PEOPLE. We are facing a language apocalypse. People are freakin’ out about the next perfect storm ripping through their hometowns and rising sea levels ruining ecosystems that have been thriving since the dawn of time, but what people haven’t been talking about is another ancient part of our everyday lives that is about to disappear: language.
Language can offer insight into history and culture. So, the loss of language (known as aphasia) is also a loss of the past, and I don’t see many people who are too keen on losing their sense of self.
The success of The Endangered Poetry Project taught me a lot about these problems. I grew up in Dublin, where many would struggle stringing together a sentence in Irish (a so-called dead language). I feel fortunate to have parents who encouraged me to learn and know how to speak and write my country’s native tongue by sending me to a ‘gaelscoil’ for my primary education. It was instilled in me to keep the language alive. Despite entering secondary school struggling to understand maths and English, I always felt it was important to learn your people’s native language. It does, in many ways, inform your growth and understanding of who you are and who those were that came before you. Context is everything.
So, in the name of saving our social context, a group of badass language conservationists at University of London’s SOAS have created a movement called ‘The Endangered Language Poetry Project.’ It’s led by head of the Endangered Languages Archive, Mandana Seyfeddinipur. The aim of this PhD project is to gather up disappearing voices from remote places in the world and archive them for future generations. Mandana says of this loss, “By the end of this century, in the next 85 years, we will lose 3500 languages – half of the 7000 languages spoken today will fall silent.” This process has been created and sped up by globalisation, urbanization, and climate change.
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For example, when people have to leave their rural lives behind and move to big cities in search of work, they often have to leave behind their native languages as well. Their children will then adopt the city’s language as their own. This is happening at an unprecedented rate today, as displacement becomes more normalised and necessary to make enough money to survive.
By conserving these languages and reaching out to members of the public to provide examples, they have been met with a multitude of essays, poems, and novels which reveal much about their speakers and what they find important in the world they see, such as in geography, music, artistic inspiration, or their family life. Reading poetry makes us aware of the common interests we all share around the world.
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Young PhD students around the age of twenty-five have been travelling to remote areas of the world and have been staying there for a few months with the hope of building relationships with groups who risk losing their language. Some of these people, such as Nineb Lamassu of Iraq who writes in Assyrian and Joy Harjo of the Mvskoke Nation, have then been commissioned by the project to write bodies of poetry in their native vulnerable languages. By bringing these poems closer to us, we are sure to learn about a new world, a new beauty, and a new story with each poem we read. What we can enjoy and learn from the world is infinite. Learning is, after all, infinite.