L is for Language: #AntarcticAlphabet

There is no private, prior language. No baby talk nor word of god has meaning beyond our shared agreement. Today, it seems, our shared language has betrayed us, is fading to leave only the emoticon of a tear.


Real things exist whatever their names on our charts. You can be shipwrecked on Isla 25 de Mayo or King George Island: the rocks of the South Shetlands don't care what you call them. The names are fraught and freighted, chained within the histories of faraway nations. In the same way the language of science, those hypotheses and taxonomies which change and confuse, has become distrusted and belied.

Europe is a real place, distant across a Dundalk street or glimpsed from the white cliffs. Europe, the loved or hated idea, is deep within us. For British-Europeans in the sceptered isle (united no more), the great project continues in our contiguity, our history, in the blood shed at Ypres, Dachau and Guernica. How do you say it? asks the bored child. If we won, why can’t we say it?

The people of England are famous for their monolingualism, slowly shouting tea with milk as if mere repetition will bring the right brown liquid to the table. Exporting the language has served us well. More people speak Chinese, but English gets everywhere, the biting mite of languages, the favoured medium of exchange. We haven’t had to bother.

Having just the one language, though, has become a bit boring, a bit lonely in the noisy hubbub of cyberspace, the drone in the headset of multi-lingual negotiations, the unknown foods on the supermarket shelf. It’s easier to talk to the family, the colonial club, however far away they are. We have substituted the myth of the common tongue for the realities of geography and landscape, the chummy blokiness of the pub replacing shared protectionism against the cold winds of free trade.

(Of course, the single tongue was always a lie: despite the best efforts of Plantaganets and imposed feudalisms, Cymraeg thrives and Gàidhlig clings to the rocks of the Hebrides. Norn is still sung and I have heard it in conversation.)

In Arabic, taqiya is a form of dissimulation, a specific provision allowing the denial of the truth of faith. For some this must never happen, while for others, it is a central part of their relationship with their god. The Druze, for instance, an Islamic faith, will not speak of god at all. Invaded and forced to speak the shahada, are they dissimulating or maintaining their beliefs? There is no way to know. For them, and for the artist, taqiya becomes the truth.

Our main language has Babelised, fragmented to mutual incomprehension and curdled to hatred. The post-fact world has been tearing us apart for some time, conservatives’ denial of expertise reaching new depths this month. Others, I, passionately want to believe that if people know the truth, the world will be better: we can mend the climate, stop the wars, love one another in peace. The prayer is for knowledge, that it brings wisdom.

And yet, and yet, the truth has been said again and again in these last months, by ordinary people furious at their disenfranchisement, the collapse of services and the changes in their towns. Now communities destroyed and still bleeding from Thatcherite assaults and Blairite arrogance have screamed out their visceral rage, after years boiling at politicians who don’t speak their language.  No-one seemed to listen, and so the evidence-based predictions are already playing out: the Union’s leaders push for stability and the markets ride the roller coaster, and ordinary people are vilely abused on the streets. Truth, along with so much else, has proved irrelevant to anger and betrayal. Fear has led to the denial of the faith: anger has become taqiya.

Anger, though, cannot be all of the truth. Complicity is central: we have all played a part in this disintegration just as we are all complicit in language. Here, in the divided kingdom, Shakespeare’s legacy in our everyday speech has not brought us together but rather left us more bitterly divided than ever. What poetry, what songs and prayers may bring us back to unity and to science, to compassion and peace?


This mini-essay was obviously finished after the referendum of 23 June 2016, which resulted in a vote to leave the European Union. I am devastated by that decision, taken two days before publishing it on the blog. 

I started writing L is for Language some weeks ago, interested in the multiple yet non-existent Antarctican language, the way the languages of science, of colonising nations and poets have shaped our perceptions of the white continent. Of course, my thoughts on language, class, truth and conflict have inevitably been roiled and rolled in the last weeks and days and I cannot stay in the place where I started. Like my country, I am different today. So this is the piece you have, sharpened in the misery of democracy and anger, with its roots deep in the Antarctic experience, in the never-silent glaciers and the sea breaking around the feet of those penguins which never shut up.

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  1. Can the US learn from this? Please stay on this trail. Write those poems, songs and prayers. Your voice is compelling and beautiful.

    • I sorely hope the US can learn from this. I hope that *we* can learn from this and find something in what currently feels like rubble. Of course it isn’t rubble: my town is not Homs. But the European project teeters on the brink and the UK has put a bit boot to its backside. I believe that is tragic. I don’t know what the US equivalent is but the prospect of the current single superpower becoming as anti-rationalist, hate-filled and *small* as we are right now is enough to set me weeping (again). Thank you for the kind words about the writing. This one was very hard to do.

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