words for lost worlds

From Swimmer Among the Stars, by Kanishk Tharoor

‘As a rule, the last speaker of a language no longer uses it. Ethnographers show up at the door with digital recorders, ready to archive every declension, each instance of the genitive, the idiosyncratic function of verbal suffixes. But this display hardly counts as normal speech. It simply confirms reality to the last speaker, that the old world of her mind is cut adrift from humans and can only bepulped into a computer. She finds it strange to listen to the sounds of her own mouth. […] She pauses, silent now, staring incredulously at the microphone. How am I the last speaker of my language? How can I be its keeper? My language left me.’ (p.1)

‘She looks at all the equipment brought by the ethnographers. Her language has no natural way of referring to a camera, a microphone, a digital recorder. It has been in exile from this world, and so it is no longer of this world. She could come up with phrases for all these objects, but what would be the point? No matter how innovative she is with her language, it does not have the force to take possession of an idea. In later years, they will say that her term “swimmer among the stars” means “astronaut.” They will never say that “astronaut” means “swimmer among the stars.”’ (p.9)

(Picador, 2017. © Kanishk Tharoor.)


The Last Man to Speak Ubykh, by John Burnside (thanks so much to my uncle Paul Roberts for introducing me to this, his favourite poem)

The linguist Ole Stig Anderson was keen to seek out the 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 in his village on 8 October 1992. The man 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,

the 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,
inklings of milk and blood on a sunlit floor

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:
the word for death, perhaps, or meadow grass,

or swimming to the surface of his mind,
that other word they used, when he was young,
for all they knew that nobody remembered.

(London Review of Books, 22 August 2002. © John Burnside.)

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