‘If you had to lose a word from your language, what would it be?’
When we hear about change in the Arctic, it’s often related to climate, but Arctic regions are also experiencing dramatic cultural change. In the last two centuries 21 indigenous Arctic languages have become extinct, and even more are now considered endangered. Even the official language of Greenland is ‘vulnerable’ according to UNESCO’s Atlas of World Languages in Danger.
The Polar Tombola represents the challenges facing contemporary Greenlandic speakers and explores the issue of endangered languages from the perspective of a poet and book artist. What happens to an individual’s experience of the world when their language begins to disappear? How will future scientists study the Arctic ecosystem without access to specialist vocabularies? What role has the printed word played in the evolution of dialects? How might we visualise language loss?
At events around the UK, from London’s Southbank Centre to the Polar Museum in Cambridge, from Liverpool’s World Museum to BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead, The Polar Tombola challenged people with the question: ‘If you had to lose a word from your language, what would it be?’ Contributions came in from librarians, scientists, artists, writers, journalists, publishers, curators and medical professionals. This exhibition displays all the resulting texts together for the first time: over 300 words from many languages including Latin, Farsi, Korean and – of course – Greenlandic. The words vary widely: some philosophical, others demotic. The word ‘strict’ was contributed by artist Linda Newington, ‘blame’ by poet Chris McCabe, ‘boring’ by letterpress printer Rachel Marsh and ‘entrepreneurial’ by the proprietor of Hazard Press. One of the boldest choices was that of poet Saradha Soobrayen: ‘tomorrow’.
To complement the many individual words collected by The Polar Tombola, this exhibition includes new texts on the same theme commissioned from contemporary writers and artists Vahni Capildeo, Will Eaves, Pippa Hennessy, Nasim Marie Jafry, Lisa Matthews, Phil Owen and Richard Price. Some writers explore linguistic politics closer to home than the Arctic: Phil Owen decides to ditch the word ‘dissever’, which features in an 1847 English report used to suppress the Welsh language in schools. Vahni Capildeo takes a more scatological approach, banning ‘bullshit’. Capildeo, with a PhD in Old Norse, is no stranger to dead languages, and her text astutely questions ‘how to “lose” or “abandon” a word? Put it in jail, throw away the key? Then in every reference book or text block, an opaque rectangle shining where it used to be…’
An illustrated catalogue The Polar Tombola: A Book of Banished Words is published by Bird Editions.
The Polar Tombola exhibition, publication and tour were made possible with generous support from Arts Council England Grants for the Arts.