If one thing has been made clear this year – be it from the school climate strikes to the Extinction Rebellion protests – it is that we are facing an unprecedented global emergency. The effect that decades of land pollution, deforestation and corporate emissions are having on our environment is sobering: the planet is on the brink of complete ecological collapse. With every species that dies out, it only becomes clearer that we’re in the midst of a mass extinction event of our own making. However, another far less documented mass extinction is currently happening. More than just our planet’s biodiversity is under threat; many of our planet’s indigenous languages are dying out.
An estimate from The Endangered Languages Catalogue (ELCat) predicts that 46 per cent of the world’s 6,500 languages will not survive into the next century, with one language dying every three months. While over two billion of the world’s population speak some English, ELCat discovered that one in nine of all living languages have fewer than 10 speakers – that’s 457 languages on the brink of extinction.
However, a new poetry anthology aims to shed light on these endangered languages. Poems from the Edge of Extinction is a collection of 50 poems from around the world compiled by Chris McCabe, head of the National Poetry Library. These have been penned and performed by poets who speak and write in the languages. Every poem has been painstakingly translated into English, with McCabe taking great care to ensure no meaning or emotion is lost in the transition between tongues.
Many of the poets tell the unique stories of their indigenous peoples: stories of suffering at the hands of colonialism, slavery and political corruption, utilising the book as a platform to amplify the voices of sorely unheard and underrepresented minority groups.
The publication of these poets’ works in English allows their voices to be heard and understood by a wider audience, many for the first time. McCabe prioritised this while he was compiling entries for the book. Speaking on The Guardian’s books podcast, he said: “It’s about foregrounding the voices of those poets. I think we’ve moved away from a period when it’s OK for the white man to go and document and capture poems and tell other people’s stories; what we really want is to be able, where we can, to allow people to tell their own stories.”
Poetry is an art form that many of us turn to in our times of emotional crescendo. We often engage with poetry to deal with the suffering that comes from the death of a loved one, but equally for times of happiness, for celebrations like births and weddings. The National Poetry Library receives an estimated 25,000 enquiries per year for poems related to these subject matters, their themes clearly being extremely relatable to large audiences, showing a general ‘need’ for poetry. These practices are commonplace in the West, and especially the UK.
McCabe’s ‘Endangered Poetry Project’ began in 2017, necessitated by his overwhelming desire to preserve these scattered fragments of culture that would otherwise be lost to time. He says there’s a lot to learn from the ways in which poetry is crafted in other languages: “When a language disappears, along with that goes poetic tradition, technique – there’s ways of making verbal art that might be completely unknown to us in the West.”
The project involved reaching out to people globally through the internet and seeing who would respond. McCabe received many written submissions, as well as a number of verbal submissions. Despite the success of his project, McCabe acknowledges that there were inherent shortcomings in using the internet. Although many poets proved easily contactable, many languages may remain undocumented and untranslated as a result of both geographical and technological isolation. Without ground-level investigation of individual communities by linguists, many languages may remain undocumented indefinitely, and invariably be lost to time.
Although endangered languages are often considered remote from familiar locations in the global North, this is not always the case; several minority tongues currently exist within Europe and even the British Isles. Manx, the language native to the Isle of Man, and Cornish – considered extremely valuable to Cornwall’s heritage and identity – have fewer than 1,000 speakers each. Meanwhile, dialects and languages originating from the Channel Islands are estimated to be spoken by fewer than 500 people.
A noteworthy contribution to the anthology, and perhaps the perfect example to illustrate how minority language speakers are desperately trying to preserve their tongues, is John Elvis Smelcer’s ‘The Poet’. This piece tells the story of a man who knows he will be the last speaker of his language due to the significant age gap between himself and the elders of his community, who are the last native speakers. The poem’s protagonist is based on Smelcer himself, who faces the same dilemma. In his work Smelcer perfectly encapsulates the sense of responsibility and personal duty he feels to learn and preserve his Alaskan language, Ahtna. Determined to save the language from extinction, Smelcer has single-handedly created a dictionary, system of grammar and even a YouTube channel dedicated to teaching viewers Ahtna words.
Another native language co-existing alongside English in New Zealand is Māori, which originates from the country’s indigenous population of the same name. Although it was once the nation’s predominant spoken language at the beginning of the 19th century, the arrival of English-speaking colonists saw the tongue become increasingly confined to Māori communities. By the mid-20th century, many were concerned that the language was facing endangerment. Vaughan Rapatahana is a prolific New Zealand poet of Māori descent who has contributed to McCabe’s anthology; many of the works he publishes deal with the subject matter of colonial repression. On The Guardian’s Book podcast, he discusses his personal relationship with the English language, arguing that from his perspective, too many countries incorporate its teaching where it is simply not needed – a continuation of century old linguistic imperialism.
The global significance and overpowering social influence of English is also evident from its global perception. English is seen as the language of business and academia, causing it to overshadow other languages. As such, many are discouraged from using their native tongue, and are instead encouraged to use English, believing it to be more favourable for finding employment and appearing educated.
Paradoxically, despite the influence that English has had on the deaths of many indigenous languages, it has played a significant role in their preservation. Another British publisher on a mission to preserve minority languages is Clive Boutle, who specialises in translations of books in lesser spoken European languages.
Speaking on The Guardian’s podcast, Boutle highlights that: “The very language which is in a way destroying minority cultures is the one that is also giving life to them. Being published in English is a world event; the point at which a writer becomes global”. He says this allows poets to be recognised on the international stage; translating works into English allows many poets to attend literature festivals in countries such as Indonesia and North Africa where English is likely to be understood.
While translation can increase recognition of endangered languages, it cannot directly preserve them. Today, many languages are at risk because they are marginalised within their own countries or communities. In an increasingly urbanised world, many people are being displaced; forced to move when their native environment is lost and with it, their mother tongue. Ultimately, to save languages from extinction, we must safeguard our world’s diverse environments and the people who live in them.
Featured image: George Tuli