The loss of language and the language of loss

At the Hay Festival last week I listened to two poetry readings, one after the other. Both, coincidentally, talked about the loss of language.

Gillian Clarke, the National Poet of Wales, had also experienced the loss of language. Reading some sparkling poetry from her forthcoming collection, Ice (add it to your wishlist!), she also talked about her relationship to the Welsh language.

Although honoured last year by the Gorsedd of Bards at the National Eisteddfod for her contribution to Welsh language and culture, she recounted that her mother had deliberately restricted her exposure to the Welsh language while she was growing up. Having noticed that the landlord to whom they paid rent for their farmhouse spoke English, whereas they spoke Welsh, her mother had determined that ensuring her children spoke only English would help them get on in life – the become the ‘haves’ rather than the ‘have -nots’. It caused some friction with her father, a proud Welshman, but it seems her mother’s decisionb was final and so Gillian grew up primarily speaking English.

But that childhood loss of Welsh language has not stopped Gillian Clarke from being loved by her Welsh (and international!) fans, being the national poet, nor becoming an honorary druid.  And she does now read and speak Welsh, although, of course, it was harder to learn as an adult.

Philip Gross is a poet I haven’t previously come across, although that’s my loss as he and his poetry has won plaudits and prizes. He was reading from his latest collection, Deep Field, in which he relates his elderly father’s gradual loss of his several languages, first to deafness, then to profound expressive aphasia.

Have you ever had that experience where the word you’re looking for is on the tip of your tongue, but you simply cannot spit it out? It’s that thingummy, you know, the wotsit doo dah…

Imagine experiencing that more and more frequently until you struggle to communicate; that’s profound expressive aphasia. Then imagine it affecting all four languages you’ve learned; that was the experience of Philip Gross’s father.

As his father lost his language, Philip became his interpreter, translating looks and gestures in a way only people with a close bond can. His meditative poetry reflects that closeness to his father and the loss they both experienced as his father struggled to communicate. It is a worthy tribute.


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