There’s a new Language Movement in town.
I remember when Charles and Bruce began publishing L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, how their writing made me think of language in a new way. Whether I’m in Australia, or on a reservation in South Dakota, when people say they are talking “in Language,” what I know is that they’re talking in their Mother Tongue. To these folks, English is not Language, English is the way you get along. Language is who you are, words that have been passed down through generations.
“Language Matters” is the first nationwide media recognition of the Language Crisis, which is not just about languages, but cultural diversity. It’s about global homogenization, the Pringleization of society, about cultures being steamrollered under globalization. The growing call to action for language preservation is a drive to see the cultures of the world through a lens of understanding and respect, of seeing the world through a cultural lens, not just a political one. The problem is that in this era of the consciousness of literacy, in this world of hard science, endangered languages and cultures are disadvantaged; if you don’t have the quantification, the metrics, you don’t really have something to say. Quantifying languages is complex (I’d like to say impossible, but I can’t). This is where the poets come in.
Four years ago, when we started “Language Matters,” people were saying there were 7,000 languages in the world. Now there are 6,000, not because we’ve lost that many languages, but because now that these numbers are really starting to count for something on the political table, linguists are beginning to hedge. It’s hard to know exactly how many languages there are, and harder to enumerate speakers. It’s not like counting the number of pandas. In the prologue to the motion poem “Khonsay,” where each line from a different endangered/minority language, we split the difference, say there are 6,500. And the reason I used the “endangered/minority” construct is because linguists also disagree on the at-risk level of many many languages.
When I was in Wales asking people if they spoke Welsh, there were people with a junior high level of vocabulary who were quite proud that they could speak Welsh. Others, who were absolutely fluent, said they couldn’t really speak it. They were hanging out with people who were born into the language, who knew more slang.
The only thing everyone agrees with is that huge numbers of languages, languages that have been around, usually, for millennia, are dying out right now.
When I tell people we’re losing half the languages on the planet by the end of this century, unless we do something about it, they never ask “how many languages is that, exactly?” Instead, their reactions are always “yes, let’s do something about it.” And again, this is why I think that participating in the Language Movement, helping to protect all languages, is part of the job of the poet in 2015. It’s a movement to protect the diversity of languages in the world. A movement to give respect to all languages. A movement to appreciate that each language has its own poetry, and is an important part of an Ecology of Consciousness.
Digital Consciousness connects us all. But are we listening to each other? Are we respecting each other’s traditions? It’s great to have “Language Matters” find its way out into the world, four years after David Grubin and I had that lunch. When I was working on “The United States of Poetry” with Mark Pellington and Joshua Blum, Josh, who gave me a dictum about TV that I’ll never forget. “The first rule of making a television program, is to get it on television.” The national broadcast of “Language Matters on PBS is the end of that quest, of that story.
Which means it’s the beginning of the journey. Now that people have seen the show, what about the call to activism inherent in it? So I ask all you poets out there to live like Natalie Diaz, and help your own Language find its way into the world. And if that Language happens to be English, well then you don’t understand the part about what Language is. Help me get this program into places where languages are struggling to survive and a screening of the film will give cred to the work. Find languages around you and learn from them. Take seriously the role of the poet as a protector of language, not just a user.
There’s nothing like writing a poem, to take words, each one with its own history, multiple meanings, and build a sculpture of meaning. It’s a gift, the words that come to us. People have sparked these sounds, people have laid down their lives for their continuation—language is the essence of humanity, and poetry is the essence of language.
Working with linguists has allowed me to see language from the other side. The collaboration of science and art is good for everybody. If you never could understand the people who come up to you and say they can’t understand poetry, I recommend your going to a linguistics conference and try to understand what those people are talking about!
But to me that’s what the future holds. Sit through a lecture in a language you don’t understand, listen to the poetry of a language you’re trying to learn, place yourself in a situation where English is useless, learn what Language really is. This is the clarion call of our time. This is why Language Matters.