“I’ll meet you under the words”. There’s a large building in Cardiff, Wales with a poem embedded directly into its front wall. The poem is written half in Welsh and half in English by Gwyneth Lewis, who is part of a vibrant Welsh-speaking renaissance that draws in families, musicians, writers, artists, hipsters and academics all across this ancient land. Welsh began to disappear centuries ago when Wales became part of England, but some have managed to generate a significant new sense of community by striving to keep the language alive. When these folks gather for festivals, dances, hip-hop beatbox sessions and poetry slams, they really are meeting under words.
Gwyneth Lewis is profiled in Language Matters, a delightful and captivating two-hour documentary currently running on PBS. The documentary is directed by David Grubin and hosted by poetry raconteur Bob Holman, who visits three locations around the world where great languages are in danger of disappearing: northern Australia, Wales and Hawaii. The films make the case that irreplaceable cultural knowledge is entwined into these regional languages, and that every time a regional language is lost, a way of thinking is lost as well.
The first journey in Language Matters is the most stirring. On the northern tip of Australia, Aboriginal families live peacefully and intermingle freely in small neighborly clusters– and yet, entire vast different languages are spoken within these family groups. Nobody in this area is monolingual; to speak each of your neighbors’ languages is a sign of respect, even though languages like Kunwinjku and Amurdak may be as different from each other as, say, English and Polish.
Some of these distinct languages are only kept alive by individual family networks or, in one extreme case, by a single person. Language Matters focuses on an elderly man who is the last person on earth to speak the language he grew up with. The kind of loneliness he must feel is barely visible in his dignified face, as he calmly delivers halting explanations of living words that will soon be lost.
It’s because a language is more than words that no academic transcription can ever capture the essence of a language that was once alive. In this documentary’s last segment in Hawaii, poet W. S. Merwin salutes the elusiveness of language, quoting a Hawaiian verse that can be translated, but not translated well, because the Hawaiian rhythms and sounds are part of the verse’s meaning. In Hawaii, as in Wales, schools have been built by tuned-in educators and linguists and caring community members to keep their cherished ancestral languages alive. We visit children in schools where they are instructed to only speak Welsh or Hawaiian.
Of course, the fact that these children are immersed in Welsh or Hawaiian at school does not mean they will not learn other languages too. But there is clearly a heavy cultural significance here; to embrace Welsh or Hawaiian is an act of protest against the conformism of an English-speaking planet. The significance feels more acute in northern Australia, where the critical mass to keep dying languages alive does not exist.
Language Matters features stunning dance sequences and beautiful nature photography along with narration and interviews by Bob Holman, who turns out to be very good at this kind of thing. I’ve known Bob Holman for years via his Bowery Poetry Club, and we published a piece he wrote about slam poetry attitudes called “15 Rules For Hecklers” in 2010. Language Matters is the kind of project Bob Holman is born to do, and if we’re lucky he’ll do more and more.
There are, after all, so many more endangered languages around the world. I remember visiting my grandmother and her sister in Brooklyn and being amazed by the Yiddish newspapers they read, printed in blocky Hebrew letters completely incomprehensible to me. I was ignorant not only of the language my grandmother spoke, but even of her alphabet.
It occurs to me now that my grandmother was actually making a choice in continuing to read Yiddish while living in Brooklyn for over 70 years. Of course she was perfectly fluent in English, but Yiddish gave her and her sister a connection to the world they wanted to be living in. I never asked her what this language meant to her, and now I wish I had.
Language Matters appears to be a television documentary about remote cultures and faraway peoples. It turns out to be a show about us all.