Losing a Language
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
W.S. Merwin 1988
This poem is a reflection poem. It is meant to be read and meant to be thought about - one of those poems that follows you around and springs on you as you read the paper, as you sit in class, as you surf the internet. It has a clear and deep cry, one that resonates on many levels. I remember being much younger and being so happy to hear of the scholars compiling language tapes of dying languages. To me, for whom language is as important as almost anything (as it is, surely, to many; we learned in my AP Human Geography class that language is the #1 feature by which a culture identifies itself), the idea of losing my language is akin to losing an arm or a leg or a lung. On a little journaling explosion on Halloween, I thought a lot about what poetry means to me, and I wrote that sometimes, when I am reading, the poem fills me up until I can no longer tell what is hand and what is word. Even that thought spilled out as a jumble of poem and self - "You Begin" by Margaret Atwood is one of my deep-rooted poems, as I think I mentioned last time. But I am rambling.
The poem illustrates language as a key component of identity. Language, after all, provides structural expressions of our selves, our cultures, and our beliefs. In Merwin’s “Losing a Language,” the narrator reflects on language as spiritual, emotional, cultural, and personal. It ties humans to place; without it, life is dull, cold, and brittle.
The form, to begin, implies dissolution, endings, and disintegration. After all, Merwin uses no punctuation and no capital letters, save the first. This seems an almost half-hearted attempt to employ English grammatical conventions, a gesture that he is aware of them, even if they rust unused. His choice here reflects the grandparents' decision to not say the things that they know. The visual form even looks like it is falling apart. Made only of short, unrhymed couplets, the poem seems to be barely holding together, just as a language slips away.
The first line establishes language as a living being, or almost. Breath leaving a sentence at once implies a spoken phrase and a breathing, animate one. It is a delicate being, and suffers when the old choose not to say it. Merwin writes that they "could say" the words, signifying that they do not. The line "they know now that such things are not to be believed" is interesting, for it seems to say that language and meaning require faith; words here are almost a spiritual entity.
Then, too, that "the young have fewer words" implies that they have less; their language (and presumably lives) are streamlined. The third couplet builds on this thought, implying that, as language is compressed, certain elements of it are squeezed out. Since "many of the things the words were about / no longer exist," the death of language accompanies death of meaning, culture, and experience, listed in the next couplet. With the fading of the words, so, too, has the mystical experience of "standing in mist by a haunted tree." To me, this line connotes reflection, the unknown, deep-seeded faith, and a tingle of fear. It reminds me of a feeling I get in certain places, the sense that everyone who has ever walked across those bricks or laughed on that bench or waited beneath the tree is actually there, embedded invisibly in the place. Losing the experience of a place through language is to lose every story that has ever unfolded under the haunted tree.
The narrator next notes that that there was once a “verb for I”. Its loss implies a dissolution of a version of self wherein change is acceptable. And it provokes the thought of how one would use the verb for I. Could one "I" things? This action recalls the interior application of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle: that, in experiencing things, seeing them, or interacting with them, one necessarily affects them, at least to the self.
Next, Merwin folds in a sense of disrespect in losing the language, writing that "the children will not repeat / the phrases their parents speak." We learn, however, that they are only following "somebody [who] has persuaded them / that it is better to say everything differently." It seems almost scornful to speak "differently," for "differently" implies that it is preferable to speak in *any* other way than in the ancestral language. Furthermore, the ambiguity of the noun "somebody" allows this convincer to be anyone from a child on the playground to the media to society itself.
The children listen to this somebody, then, "so that they can be admired somewhere / farther and farther away." To begin, this motivation seems hollow against the power and spirituality of the haunted tree and the verb for I. I find that the idea of admirability, or (more plainly) coolness, attached to linguistic pressure fascinating, because it touches on so much human motivation. We are social creatures, first and foremost; a child will adopt its peers' accent instead of its parents', if the accents are different. The narrator also suggests that coolness is insular, for it goes hand in hand with the kids being "farther and farther away." This is the first time, too, we get the sense of foreginness the end of the poem is so conscious of.
Before this continues, note that the the narrator is actually a "we", and not in the "royal we" sense of the word, but in the communal, societal sense of it. A group of people is relating its deep and ubiquituous ache. I know that the "we" could simply be one person telling her experiences, but the communal idea works well within the poem and, to me, has a stronger impact.
The line "where nothing that is here is known" moves the speakers to a foregin place. It reminds me of a line from Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, where the wise, ancient character, when asked how he learned the news from far away, replies "Everything is known." To me, this has always meant (on one level, at least) that human knowledge is held in a larger consciousness, and, if we can teach ourselves to sense it, we may draw from it. In this sense, losing a language entails a diminishment of the human consciousness, for, with the loss of the verb for I and the haunted tree, for example, the amount known in the world lessens. Of course, that is a very personal connection; it was probably not an intentional allusion, but it works within the frame of the poem and enriches my read of it. Just a little justification.
At any rate, the next line "we have little to say to each other" shows that the connection within a community fail as does a language. Not only do the group-members (family, town, society, culture) have little to say to one another, content-wise, they have literally little language with which to say it. Only scraps of a foregin language remain for them to use.
The next two lines actually appropriate the new owners' language system, for the speakers call themselves "wrong" and "dark". Not only has language dissipated, but people's sense of self-worth has crumbled as well. Also, the word "owners" begs the question: owners of what? They may own language, power, the old culture, the sway of children's minds, the building in which the speakers live etc. Ownership implies a kind of slavery, almost; this read works well with "wrong" and "dark," and implies that their minds are now slaves to the new language.
I was talking with my housemate last night about the line “the day is glass,” and, having slept on the conversation, have come to the thought that this is the central metaphor for a life without one’s own language. Day is still visible and clear, but it is insulated, brittle, cold, and sharp. Gloria suggested that glass implies television, which in turn connotes passivity. The day is no longer a space in which to live; it is an ailing region in which life flies by without truth, without reality. Even the neighbors are estranged, for "when there is a voice at the door it is foregin", and "everywhere instead of a name there is a lie." With this line, I am imagining scraps of understanding fluttering overhear cloaked in the new language while the rest of life whirls about, blurred and confused.
The poem ends with a hearbreak like shattered glass, with the kind of knowing ending that is so tragic. The lines "this is what the words were made / to prophesy" tells us that this culture had an entire set of creation and apocalyptic myths. They new it was coming, and yet that doesn't make it any easier for the inhabitants. The end of the poem feels like a true end, and as wretched as one as well. Not all endings are grevious, of course; most lead into new and brighter things. With this poem, however, the end of a language is an extinction. It is the termination of a species, of thousands and millions of years of buildup, of consciousness, of experience and emotion and love. That the poem ends looking to the past, to "the rain we saw", signals that there will be no future. The language is lost, and a silent, aching grief has taken its place.