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The endangered poetry project: preserving the poetic tradition


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LONDON - “They fly to Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea and there they take a bus for three days and then they hike over a mountain and then they take a canoe and then they get to this little bay with 300 people.”

It’s the stuff of Indiana Jones – but rather than seeking out a treasure hidden in the jungle, the aim of this journey is to collect voices.

And the people venturing into some of the world’s most remote places aren’t hardened adventurers carrying whips.

Instead, they are “PhD students of 25 with a digital camera, a digital audio recorder and solar panels”, according to Mandana Seyfeddinipur, head of the Endangered Languages Archive at London’s SOAS (School of Oriental Studies).

But what the roving linguists find is arguably up there with a lost Incan temple.

“They live with the communities for months at a time, and develop social relationships, and talk to them and record them, and then they come back and they give me this SD card,” Seyfeddinipur tells BBC Culture.

“I’m such a wimp, I get so teary when I first hold it, because possibly the only record that we have of this language is in this tiny SD card.”

Seyfeddinipur has been working with London’s Southbank Centre’s National Poetry Library to preserve words that would otherwise be lost.

“The doomsday linguistic view is that by the end of this century, in the next 85 years, we will lose 3,500 languages – half of the 7,000 languages that are spoken today will fall silent,” she says. “We’re losing languages at the same speed at which the world lost its dinosaurs at the fifth mass extinction.”

Although it’s a natural process – “people move somewhere, they give up their language and adapt another language, it’s the beauty of language that it’s a social tool,” she argues – it’s now happening at an unprecedented rate.

“Because of globalisation and urbanisation and climate change, this process has sped up beyond what we’ve ever seen.”

The newly launched Endangered Poetry Project aims to tackle that loss at another level. “Languages are dying out at an astonishing rate: a language is being lost every two weeks,” says the National Poetry Librarian Chris McCabe.

“And each of those languages has a poetic tradition of some sort, whether it’s written or aural – within that poetry will be all the different approaches and styles of writing poetry, as well as everything that poetry can tell us about those people: what they’re interested in; what their concerns are.”


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Jordan Dean

Thanks for the information. I am currently editing a policy paper (Research Approval Guideline) to ensure that the well-being and interests of Papua New Guineans are protected and that research conducted in the country is appropriate, worthwhile and provides educational as well as socio-economic benefits.

Ethical issues with regards to the use of humans and animals are important consideration. Similarly the cultural and environmental issues must also be addressed.

This guideline applies to visiting researchers to Papua New Guinea who host, conduct, participate in or disseminate the results of research activities.

Ed Brumby

As an applied linguist myself, I certainly don't doubt the value of individual languages. Language is, after all, along with race and place, one of the critical (if not the most critical) markers of one's 'identity'.

Nor do I question the value in 'preserving' languages in some fashion, if only to provide fodder for research by linguists, anthropologists, semiologists, historians et al.

But language is a living thing and the only true way of 'preserving' it is to ensure that retains currency and use - and only the speakers of a language can do that.

Garry Roche

There has been serious study of the "chanted saga" in PNG cultures. As noted, poetry and song were linked.

Much oral history was preserved through chanted verse. Alan Rumsey and Don Niles have produced material on this. see:-

Google the term "Chanted saga in Papua New Guinea" - some of the material may be of interest to PNG writers.

Garry Roche

Ed Brumby is right in questioning the "3 days" bus ride from POM. However I do think it is important to acknowledge the value of the various languages. The Summer Institute of Linguistics already has done a great job working with so many of these languages, no matter how small the number who speak the language.

Ed Brumby

How far can you go on a bus for 3 days from POM? This piece is a waste of space, Keith ....

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