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Poem: "Why Old Women Fall in Love with Linguists" - The Wordsmith's Forge — LiveJournal
The Writing & Other Projects of Elizabeth Barrette
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Poem: "Why Old Women Fall in Love with Linguists"

This poem came from the February 5, 2013 Poetry Fishbowl.  It was inspired by prompts from moonwolf1988, wyld_dandelyon, and siege.  It contains excerpts from Smithsonian February 2013, the article "Last Words" by Ariel Sabar pp. 31-34, with linguist Geoffrey Khan.  (Those lines are not counted for purposes of pricing.)  This poem was selected in an audience poll to be opened for microfunding.

This microfunded poem is being posted one verse at a time, as donations come in to cover them. The rate is $.50/line, so $5 will reveal 10 new lines, and so forth. There is a permanent donation button on my profile page, or you can contact me for other arrangements. You can also ask me about the number of lines per verse, if you want to fund a certain number of verses.
So far sponsors include: general fund

FULLY FUNDED
102 lines, Buy It Now = $51
Amount donated = $41.50
Verses posted = 28 of 35

Amount remaining to fund fully = $8.50
Amount needed to fund next verse = $.50
Amount needed to fund the verse after that = $.50




Why Old Women Fall in Love with Linguists


A dozen years from now,
or a hundred, nobody will know
what they were saying
in the language they lived all their lives.

The old women know this.

There are few babies babbling in this tongue,
certainly not enough to carry on much longer.
It is not a secret, though not many people
bother to know it all the same.
Those who do ... attract their attention.

    "The less education, the better," Khan said.
     "When people come together in towns,
     even in Chicago, the dialects get mixed."

When the linguists come,
the old women know what to do.
They pack all their knowledge as fast as they can,
because they know that a storm is coming
to sweep it all away and they have only
a very little time to throw what they can
into the hold of this ship before it departs.

The old women know this.

They know that they are
shouting down the long dark tunnel of time,
shouting at the top of their aging lungs
in hopes of being heard over entropy's howling hurricane,

trying desperately to save something, anything,
because they know they cannot save everything:

because their children have willed it so,
walking down a different path
on their small determined feet.

    (My father,
     a Jew born in Kurdish Iraq,
     is a native speaker and scholar of Aramaic;
     I grew up in Los Angeles and know
     just a few words.)

The old women know this.

These are not their children,
these foreign linguists with their strange ways
and stranger faces, eyes and hair of funny colors,
but they are the ones who have come.

They are the ones
who catch what the old women throw,
who hear treasure where others hear only trash.

They old women open themselves
like brightly colored scarves wrapped around jewelry
sent to be sold on a distant beach --
oh, see how each piece glitters in the sun!
It is the linguists who value such things.

They and the old women know,
they aren't doing it for money or fame
or any other fleeting prize.

They bleed time for this one thing,
pour out the drops of their lives
into the ocean of ages:
they do it for love.

    Khan beamed.
     "I fall in love with these old ladies,"
     he said.

The old women know this.

Is it any wonder, then,
that they fall in love with the linguists too?

Is it any wonder, then,
that they cling to this one last chance
to say what needs to be said,
to fling breath like a message in a bottle
high over the heaving waves?

    A frail woman in her mid-90s answered the door.
     Khan looked at her brittle physique
     and wondered how much she could handle.
     He told himself he would stay for just a few minutes.

The loss of language is not inevitable,
yet people choose not to avoid it,
every day, every night,
in the little things they do not do,
in the words left unspoken.

It is their choice.
It is the right of the young
to decide what the future will hold
and what will be held only in the arms of history.

The old women know this.

   When he got up to leave,
     the woman stretched a bony hand
     across the table and clasped his wrist.
     "Biqir, biqir," she pleaded,
     in a small voice.
     Ask, ask.

They know their language will go down
like the wreck of a once-great ship,
swallowed up by the sea and the sands
to become nothing more than bones.

The love songs of their youth,
the rhymes that went with the games
that nobody remembers the rules to,
the lullabies that they sang to their babies
who now have babies and grand-babies of their own,
the stories they were told and told in their turn,
all of these things will pass away
when they themselves pass away
and go into the earth in long smooth boxes.

The old women know this.

They do not have to like it --
they may be resigned
or bitter as black coffee --
but it is a species of knowledge
they cannot escape.

    "She literally grabbed onto me,"
     he said.  "It was as if
     this was her last breath
     and she wanted to tell me everything."


The old women know this.

They make their plans accordingly,
and their choices -- let the children
shake their heads and wonder
why mama spends such time
with those foreigners --
and they know what they are doing.

If that is what must be,
then so be it:
they will leave at least fossils
from the quick silver fish of their girlhood
and the words that once sang of such futures
they will never live to reach.

They will leave at least this:
the bones turned to meaningful stone,
the whispers in the shells of the beach,
the distant glimmering memories,

and the love.

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8 comments or Leave a comment
Comments
e_scapism101 From: e_scapism101 Date: April 9th, 2013 12:23 pm (UTC) (Link)
I just got chills! I occasionally look around the interwebs for information about languages that are disappearing or endangered...and I recall reading about one that has two fluent native speakers left...and they aren't speaking to each other due to some forgotten feud. There has to be fodder for a story there, right?
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: April 9th, 2013 06:33 pm (UTC) (Link)

Yes...

>>I just got chills!<<

That's what the article did to me, hence the poem.

>> I occasionally look around the interwebs for information about languages that are disappearing or endangered...<<

I do that too.

>>and I recall reading about one that has two fluent native speakers left...and they aren't speaking to each other due to some forgotten feud. There has to be fodder for a story there, right?<<

Yeah, I've heard that one, very sad. I may keep it in mind.
kestrels_nest From: kestrels_nest Date: April 17th, 2013 04:01 am (UTC) (Link)
Sometimes it's the choice of the parents rather than the children. Our grandparents wanted their children to be Americans. They wanted to belong. And so even though they spoke the languages of their youth to each other, they did not speak them to us, nor much in our presence. They changed their names - Yossel became Joe, Gittel became Gertrude, Rasha became Rae and Moshe, Morris. My near-sister has lamented often that she could so easily have been trilingual - both her parents grew up speaking Polish and German, but they would not do so with their children. We were to be Americans, and Americans spoke English.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: April 21st, 2013 06:17 am (UTC) (Link)

Yes...

That does happen. I find it very sad.
From: technoshaman Date: May 15th, 2013 04:09 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Yes...

Still a melancholy ending, but not nearly as tragic as Humboldt's Parrot... at least *some* will be remembered.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: May 15th, 2013 04:14 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Yes...

So very true. I hate that so many languages are dying out, but I love seeing bunches of people get on the internet to save others.
From: technoshaman Date: May 15th, 2013 04:12 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Yes...

Some old languages have even made it to the digital age.... a Cherokee woman back in February showed me her iPhone, with its Cherokee alphabet alternate keyboard... I was seriously impressed.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: May 15th, 2013 04:15 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Yes...

That is awesome. Cherokee has been very stubborn about language retention. They have a whole press, The Book Publishing Company. I've heard there are newspapers too, or were. It's pretty lively online. So are Navajo and Lakota.
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