Losing a language


I have sometimes considered the people who move to other countries and go so “native” that they begin to lose touch with the intricacies of their own native language, often without really becoming native in the adopted language. What is this linguistic limbo, then? I have, sometimes to my detriment, clung fiercely to the native language. Sometimes it is not about locating oneself or one’s identity in another language, place or culture but, like this poem highlights, asserting an identity (almost generationally) – one’s own way of saying things, even though perfectly adequate words and expressions exist for the concepts one wants to express. (Sure, this is not always the case, as when we discuss things like Tinder, Siri, Amazon, Google… linguistic shortcuts that eventually represent a whole category of activities or things.)

Losing a Language
WS Merwin
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
nobody remembers

this is what the words were made
to prophesy

here are the extinct feathers
here is the rain we saw

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