Over the last 50 years, I have tried to learn several languages and though my French is passable and I once spoke reasonable Italian, “frustrated linguist” describes me well. Even at an early stage, I noticed that with each language I was a different person. This gives rise to the intriguing notion that there are many ideas, thoughts and concepts, feelings lurking within me that I cannot express as I do not pocess the appropriate language. What would the Twi me say, how would I feel in Hindi, how would I write poetry in Finnish? This difference alone makes it important, I feel, for our communities to have several languages. English yes for day-to-day and to maintain social cohesiveness but other languages to bring difference, strength and beauty.
Planning or conscious action is not my strong point, as Valerie would tell you, but in April last year I mounted an exhibition that is a metaphor for the benefit of difference. My poem, Londinium, in 28 languages printed on A1 posters, designed by Jools Barrett, at the Dugdale Centre, Enfield. A link to the index of all the poems is at the bottom of this blog or you can click here.
I wanted to celebrate the 300 languages currently spoken in London and the 450 English is derived from. Here is a list of the top 40 languages spoken in London
The fact that London’s population consists of people from such a variety of nations gives it great strength and vitality and, of course, London has, from the beginning been full of people from all over.
It was first built by the Romans in the early 40s CE and the legions and administrators were from all nations across the Roman Empire so right from the start London’s population has been diverse. This particular spot for Londinium was chosen as the Thames narrows here yet is still tidal so sea going vessels could sail or row upstream to dock and unload. It is still used to transport goods.
Though I am not sure how this yacht managed to berth in Trafalgar Square!
English owes its origins to migrants, the Angles, Saxons and Jutes who came to England in about 450 CE pushing the Britons west into Wales and Cornwall. The latter’s Celtic language is now mainly found in place names or geographic terms in modern English but is still alive as modern Welsh and Cornish. The early English language was pushed into the background by the Norman Conquest in 1066 when Norman French became the language of power although Norman French was spoken in the Royal courts before the conquest due to the somewhat complicated relationship of the rulers either side of the Channel.
Post Conquest, English was the least important of the three languages mainly spoken in England namely Latin, Norman French and English. Welsh and Gaelic would also have been spoken to a degree and, no doubt, there were pockets of Saxon. It was Chaucer writing in the 14th CE who started us along the path that has led to the dominance of English today; or at least, English and American.
I find thinking on the origins of language fascinating. When one of the proto human species became omnivore its teeth and jaw became smaller as it did not need to munch on seeds and roots. The reduction in size made the lips and tongue nimble enough to articulate sounds. Becoming bipedal caused a section of the brain to develop so as to enable this and also find the rhythm to walk This same section is used for music which led to vocal communication. The first Homo Sapiens in Africa about 200,000 years ago acquired a gene that enabled their brain to break holistic sounds of communication, to segment a stream of sound, into chunks which led to words. Speech is thought to have started to develop around 170,000 years ago and became embedded in Homo Sapiens around 50,000 years ago. It enabled co-operation and thinking which caused the Neanderthals to become extinct as Homo Sapiens were just too efficient at living. This can be deduced from the explosion of art, decoration and ritual which needs social interaction and good communication For detailed information I suggest the fascinating book, the Singing Neanderthals by Steven Mithen.
The poem Londinium floated into my head as I was reading about London and I can recommend Peter Ackroyd’s books, London, the Biography and London Under. There are others on my shelf but I particularly liked these. Boudicca burnt Londinium in 50 CE and there is still a line of burnt ash and iron between all the buried history of London and where we walk today. I love the idea of all the archaeology of London cupped in the line of ash from Boudicca’s burning and the pavements on which stroll and London has always been noisy. In the 17th Century the vigorous ringing of hand bells became a fashionable way to exercise adding to the noise of the smiths, wheelwrights, carpenters all hammering and crashing. Think of it, thousands of bells sounding everywhere in London all day and night. London has always been stinking, smoke laden, busy with tanners, burning rubbish ,the soap makers, human and animal excrement in the street, urine being collected and used to wash clothes in public laundries and all those unwashed bodies and bad teeth!
In its beginning the River Thames was very wide and dotted with islands or eyots. Building over the centuries has narrowed it to where it is today and the rivers feeding it covered over. You can see in these two photographs looking taken from The Eye, that the Thames basin is huge giving some idea as to how wide the Thames would have been.
Last year a French mother and daughter, friends of our grandson, stayed with us for their first visit to England. They were overwhelmed at how friendly and helpful Londoners were. London is friendly and accepting, this is its great strength which is why I ended my poem as I did.
This statue at Liverpool Street station is in memory of the Kindertransport which enabled Jewish children to escape Nazi Germany They were given homes all over Britain.
A friend, who is an Israeli poet, translated Londinium into Hebrew. I was very excited, a poem of mine in Hebrew! I then began to wonder, what could I do with it? I do not speak Hebrew so cannot perform it. If, I said to myself, I had a few other translations I could print them and put them on a wall. Well this thought led to another and another and 27 languages later I had the basis for an exhibition. Paul Everitt Head of Culture for Enfield, introduced me to the designer Jools Barret who produced some magnificent designs.
The translation process was interesting as metaphor and ideas are different in each language and I had many illuminating conversations with the translators. For the language notes I had with each poster I used two interesting and useful books; Dictionary of Languages by Andrew Dalby and The World’s Major Languages edited by Bernard Comrie and, of course good old Wikipedia.
All the translations, including English, can be found by clicking here. Just click on the language in the list and you will find the poem on the page and with an audio recording of the poem being read in that language and if you scroll down, the poster and language notes from the exhibition. Before you visit these pages please view the video below. The idea came to me whilst travelling on the train to Liverpool Street Station. The carriage was full of people speaking in a multitude of languages at the top of their voices. I could not understand any of them but it sounded fun, was exciting.
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