Tell me what you see vanishing and I will tell you who you are.
– W.S. Merwin
This month, we share with you an email we received from the First Period Poetry class at Greenhill School in Addison, Texas, that got us thinking:
We are Juniors at Greenhill School in Addison, Texas. We read “Losing a Language” this morning with great interest, and have a couple of questions for you. Does your poem describe a time specific conflict between generation X and baby boomers, or a timeless conflict between all youth and their respective elders? In the twenty-five years since you wrote this poem, has your view (on language, on loss, on technology) changed?
Thanks again for your poem!
Greenhill School First Period Poetry
Losing a Language by W.S. Merwin
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 owners
the radio is incomprehensible
the day is glass
when there is a voice at the door it is foreign
everywhere instead of a name there is a lie
nobody has seen it happening
this is what the words were made
here are the extinct feathers
here is the rain we saw
Merwin on language:
We try to save what is passing, if only by describing it, telling it, knowing all the time that we can’t do any of these things. The urge to tell it, and the knowledge of the impossibility. Isn’t that one reason we write? (The Paris Review)
Questions to Consider:
When do you use language and feel it is sacred? When does language move you deeply?
Do you speak – or have you ever spoken- another language and what significance did those words in another tongue hold for you?
What is our responsibility to preserve our own language?
Facts on Extinct & Endangered Languages and Additional Resources:
- National Geographic writes: “The next century nearly half of the roughly 7,000 languages spoken on Earth will likely disappear, as communities abandon native tongues in favor of English, Mandarin, or Spanish.”
- The late expert on endangered and disappearing languages, Dr. Peter Ladefoged, stated: “Hawaiian is on its way to being restored. But the other side of the story is whether the Hawaiian that’s being taught is the same as the Hawaiian that’s spoken by the remnant population that has always spoken it as a native language.”
- UNESCO defines endangered language: A language is endangered when its speakers cease to use it, use it in fewer and fewer domains, use fewer of its registers and speaking styles, and/or stop passing it on to the next generation.
- Endangered Languages Project
- Award-winning Filmmaker David Grubin is currently working on a film about languages in danger of extinction, Language Matters with Bob Holman. In connection with their research, Grubin and Holman visited W.S. Merwin on Maui’s north shore in 2013.
VISIT our previous Poetry Lab: Carolee Campbell shares her dedicated and immersive process of bookmaking in relation to W.S. Merwin’s poem The Real World of Manuel Córdova.