On Poetry and Culture Shock

Language death and the death of gods.

I like to study the process of language birth and death. Languages die when people don’t use them anymore to talk to their babies; only children learning a language keep it alive.

There are three main reasons why languages can disappear: One, if Culture A which speaks Language A kills or enslaves all native speakers of Language B. Two, if Culture A invades Land B and people in Land B need to use Language A to deal with their new bosses, with their new government, etc. Three, when people in Land B think that by learning Language A they will prosper and have more opportunities in life because people in Land A are richer or more numerous than them. In all three cases, the B People first become bilingual for a few generations, and then their children prefer one language to the other until Language B dies. The professor who taught me this process said once that when there is only one person who speaks a language, there is actually two: there is the last speaker, and God, when the last speaker prays. Coming from a country with several different minority languages, and after having lived with hardly any chances to use my native language for a whole year, I think I understand how it feels to think in a language that no one else understands!

Anyway, that was a bit of an oblique introduction to Yehuda Amichai. He composed in Hebrew and my translation into English isn’t credited. I’m just going to put together a few bits and pieces that I like from a very long poem by him.

Tombstones crumble, they say words tumble, words fade away,
The tongues that spoke them turn to dust,
Languages die as people do,
Some languages rise again,
Gods change up in heaven, gods get replaced,
Prayers are here to stay.
I declare with perfect faith
That prayer preceded God.
Prayer created God,
God created human beings,
Human beings create prayers
That create the God that creates human beings.
After Auschwitz, no theology:
The numbers on the forearms
Of the inmates of extermination
Are the telephone numbers of God,
Numbers that do not answer
And are now disconnected, one by one.

Las lápidas se parten, dicen que los planetas mueren, las palabras se olvidan,
Las lenguas que las dijeron vuelven al polvo,
Los idiomas se mueren, igual que la gente,
Algunos idiomas resucitan,
Los dioses cambian, allá en el cielo, los dioses se sustituyen,
Las oraciones llegan y se quedan.
Declaro con fe perfecta
Que rezar fue antes que Dios.
Rezar creó a Dios,
Dios creó a los seres humanos,
Los seres humanos crearon la oración
Que creó al dios que crea seres humanos.
Después de Auschwitz, no hay teología.
Los números en los antebrazos
de los presos del exterminio
son los números de teléfono de Dios,
Números que nadie contesta
Y que ahora se desconectan, de uno en uno.

2 comentarios

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Juliet -

HI Nia
That's powerful poetry. When a language dies, so much dies with it, because each language comes with its own world view. I've got on my large pile of books to be read a copy of 'Spoken Here' by Mark Abley, a book about dying languages. I will one day read it.....