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PEN World Voices Festival Dispatch: “Speaking in Languages on the Edge”

By Elisa Wouk Almino

The Speaking in Languages on the Edge event, held on May 1, featured Gillian Clarke, Joy Harjo, Natalio Hernandez, and Bob Holman.

There are approximately 6,000 languages in the world, and more than half of them are endangered. This was one of the facts that introduced the PEN World Voices event Speaking in Languages on the Edge on Wednesday at Joe’s Pub. The event began with a clip from host Bob Holman’s forthcoming PBS series, Language Matters, which focuses on one of language’s greatest survivors: Welsh.

Welsh has been kept alive through the ardent will of Wales' young population, Welsh school systems, and Welsh media. It has also been perpetuated through its native poets, such as Gillian Clarke, who frequently intermixes English words with Welsh ones. Clarke grew up speaking predominantly in English, since her mother deemed Welsh essentially worthless. She learned to speak Welsh from her father, in secret, during car rides.

Joy Harjo likewise admitted to having only learned Navaho as a young adult, when she began writing poetry. “Like many we were taught English to get by in this world,” she stated plainly. In both of the poets’ lives, English was perceived as the more practical language. In the case of Natalio Hernández, a Nahuatl-Spanish poet, Nahuatl has been prohibited from Mexican schools altogether, despite it being Mexico’s second most spoken language after Spanish. 

The panel was less interested in the literal or pragmatic usages of language; the choice of four poets, rather than four native prose writers, linguists or academics, speaks to this. Poetry gives each word a pause and place; it makes us attentive to sound—to the texture of language itself. Poetry is arguably language at its most transformed; it is not what we would hear colloquially on the street. Thus the panel presented these ancient languages and cultures in their most malleable and expressive form. More than one poem was not read but sung: “music carries the spirit of the words,” Harjo articulated. Though we were not always given the foreign words’ meaning, we could grasp the mood associated with them through melody and pitch.

When presenting her poem, “First Words,” Clarke warned of a “double l” sound in the passage she was going to read in Welsh, which she likened to the rhythm of the ocean. “We’re all sea people,” she explained. Hernández evoked flowers, plant life, and the moon; after his reading, he concluded that the “colors of nature reflect in the colors of people.” It would seem that for both poets nature is inherent to the way in which their cultures have experienced the world, which in turn has informed their language.

As expressed by more than one person on the panel, just as we must save creatures and plants, we must also save languages. We can compare various poems in the way we compare different languages: they all present new ways of seeing. Thus, when a language is at risk of extinction, so is that culture’s interpretation of the world.

Published May 2, 2013   Copyright 2013 Elisa Wouk Almino

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