Re: Languages of the world

From: John Hudson (
Date: Fri Mar 25 2005 - 22:45:37 CST

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    On the subject of the costs of language death. While in London recently I bought a copy of
    John Burnside's collection of poetry _The good neighbour_, primarily because it contains
    this poem, which I read in the London Review of Books when it was first published there a
    couple of years ago.


    The last man to speak Ubykh

    by John Burnside

    [The linguist Ole Stig Anderson was keen to seek out the last remaining traces of a West
    Caucasian language called Ubykh. Having heard that there was one remaining speaker, he set
    out to find the man and arrived at his village on October 8, 1992. Unfortunately, the man,
    Tevfik Esenc, had died a few hours earlier.]

    At times, in those last few months,
    he would think of a word
    and he had to remember the tree, or the species of frog,
    that sound denoted:

    the tree itself, or the frog, or the state of mind
    and not the equivalent word in another language,
    the speech that had taken his sons and the mountain light;
    the graves he swept and raked; the wedding songs.

    While years of silence gathered in the heat,
    he stood in his yard
    and whispered the name of a bird
    in his mother tongue,

    while memories of snow and market days,
    his father's hands, the smell of tamarind
    receded in the names no longer used:
    the blue of childhood folded like a sheet

    and tucked away.
    Nothing he said was remembered; nothing he did
    was fact or legend
    in the village square;

    yet later they would memorise the word
    he spoke that morning, just before he died:
    a name for death, perhaps,
    or meadow grass,

    or swimming to the surface of his mind,
    another word they had, when he was young,
    a word they rarely spoke, though it was there
    for all they knew that nobody remembered.


    Tiro Typeworks
    Vancouver, BC
    Currently reading:
    A century of philosophy, by Hans Georg Gadamer
    David Jones: artist and poet, ed. Paul Hills

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