|Posted by Angie on November 29, 2013 at 11:35 PM|
When I was a child I lived in my local library. It was a safe haven stacked with volumes that I could dream and travel in.
One of the books I loved the most was a hard covered coffee table style book wrapped in thick plastic that had images of the Seri people of the Sonoran Desert. I was hooked. One day, I promised myself, I would travel beyond the pages.
Recently, my memory was sparked of that first day I turned the page in that book when I read Vanishing Languages, by Russ Rymer. The article looks at some endangered languages in the world and asks what cultural and spiritual knowledge we stand to lose as languages become extinct. The article resonated with me.
I, too, was raised speaking a language that has been dismissed, even in it’s country of origin as ‘a dialect’. The Sicilian language now appears on UNESCOs list of endangered languages; its status vulnerable.
When I visited my family in Sicily for the first time in twenty years, I was surprised to find that many people the same age as me didn’t speak the language I was raised with. It seems that migrants bottled and preserved its words to bring them to new places whilst they were diluted and lost in their countries of origin.
Sicilian is a rich language that has it’s roots in Arabic, Spanish, Greek and popular Latin. The language is rich, diminutives and superlatives made from stems abound and meaning, there is a richness and a bawdy and wicked humour that is often difficult to translate into English or Italian.
When I meet a person that can speak Sicilian, I feel an extraordinary sense of shared knowledge, secrets and humour. I feel a tremendous sense of belonging in that shared knowledge. There is a sense of kinship that ironically cannot be articulated with words. It is more within the spiritual interiors of words themselves. Embedded inside words is how meaning is made, relationships to our cultural and personal histories, to land and to people.
My travels have taken me to many places, but I’m still to visit the Seri people that ask, “Where is your placenta buried?” When they ask where you come from.
There are only approximately 1,000 speakers of the Seri language left. The language is one tied to a disappearing culture that is connected to land and sea and one that survived Spanish colonization. It is unique and poetic. As a child travelling no further than the pages of a library book, being in ESL classes until I was ten and then told by Italians that what I spoke wasn’t a real language, I somehow understood this.
Not long ago, I was talking poetry with the amazing Tamryn Bennett from the Red Room organization, when the conversation turned to vanishing languages and the cultural knowledge and diversity that is so often lost. When I mentioned the Seri, Tamryn asked how I knew about them. I talked about Meyer’s article and how it resonated with me. I told her about my childhood interest and how lovely a language is that asks you where your placenta is buried. Tamryn had travelled to the Sonora and visited the Seri. For days after, I was left with the same longing I had as a child about visiting beyond the pages of a book.
A week later, Tamryn returned laden with a beautiful gift. It was a Seri necklace , handmade of shells, bird and fish bones, purchased on one of her visits.
For a woman who can speak several languages, I always find myself lost for words when I am emotionally moved. In a way, I’ve lost my ability to speak any language fluently now. Growing up in a household where Sicilian, English, Italian, French and German were flung across the room with gesticulations to match, we rarely finished any sentence in the one language. But I understand the spiritual interiors of many languages, the intangible meanings within them. It is meaning that moves us rather than words and I think that is what keeps writers chasing stories – to find the words that unlock these spiritual interiors.
Is this why we write, why we read – to capture the intangible? The shared cultural knowledge and secrets and yearnings we share, perhaps without knowing?
I think this might be how I live.