On Language, Place and Culture

We embark this issue on a journey into sound around the globe, exploring associations between language and place to gain a deeper appreciation of the cultures we encounter.

Our voyage starts in the Pacific where Eric Paul Shaffer‘s lyrical ‘Ka ‘Okina: Ka Leokanipū ‘Ewalu I Ka ‘Ōlelo Hawai’i’ [‘The ‘Okina: the Eighth Consonant in the Hawaiian Language’] reveals the essence of the islands encapsulated in the silence of a breath of air. It is a beautifully rendered illustration of the intertwining of language, place and culture.

We travel next to Northern Europe, ‘Feeling our way in Friesland’ with Pete Mullineaux. Here too we find language-culture interwoven with the landscape. It is a landscape deftly drawn, as much auditory and tactile as visual, and as such so vital it echoes emotion. It is also a landscape under threat in a way that prompts English teachers to reflect upon their impact.

On the final leg of our journey we head for sunnier climes to experience with Elizabeth Holden Wagenheim the joy of learning Spanish. Wagenheim’s rich, sensual imagery shows us that as the ‘Other Tongue’ takes shape in (or, more accurately, begins shaping) the mouth of the narrator, it is not merely the mechanical manipulation of sounds that is being learned. It is a language-culture steeped in affect that is being acquired.



Ka ‘Okina: Ka Leokanipū ‘Ewalu I Ka ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i

The eighth consonant is not a sound, but a paddle thrust
              through tides, a hole ground through an anchor stone

knotted to braided line rising through waves and current to sky
   and sun. The ‘okina is a hole through which the world speaks.

Here, the curl in the open breaking waves of vowels becomes
       a consonant carved of silence. On shores of endless blue,

where sea and sky trade hues, and islands are born from fire,
          the tongue must honor the silence within words.



Feeling our way in Friesland

The sat-nav voice tells our driver when we need to turn; 
but otherwise stays mute. At complex intersections the
interjections become more like chatter, almost a fellow-
passenger. The speaker is Dutch so we can only sit back
and enjoy the word-music, its ebb and flow, rise and fall.

Later, a walking tour of Harlingen’s canals and seaboard 
reveals areas of higher ground, ‘terps’ – artificial mounds
made by the townspeople for precious sanctuary at times
of flooding. ‘These are our mountains’ the guide jokes. 
At Pingjum we walk the braille-ridge of an ancient dyke. 

So the journey is neither straight nor flat – first we must 
trace the raised border that contains the land; allow the soft
pads of our fingertips and soles to map the proud interior.
Islands of letter-notes link up like stepping stones to form
place-names: Makkum, Workum, Dokkum – that echo a

communality of expression in word-endings; definitions
of longing and belonging; rafts of tenuous buoyancy above
the rising water-line; constant babble of encroaching seas. 



Other Tongue

This warm 
climate-language feels 
like a mouthful of snow, numbing
my anglo L’s, affricate J’s and especially
my jagged X which becomes heee in Spanish elongating
lips to a smile.
Syllables taste like mangos not 
tart hard pears.

I have blossoms in my hair 
And a sway in my hips when
the words dance
out of my mouth
hesitant on my tongue 
with promise.


Even Further West, by Eric Paul Shaffer

One evening on Lāhaina’s Front Street, as Shaffer walked to an evening with friends, someone passing on the sidewalk commented, ‘The islands are even further west than I thought.’ Those accidental words, like poetry, shifted his perspective once again regarding the place he lives.

Even Further West is a collection of poems written of, in, and on the Hawaiian islands. Poems ranging from the sunset slopes of Haleakalā on Maui to the crowded boulevards of Honolulu examine a Hawai’i presenting unexpected moments in a place many call paradise. Companion volume to Lāhaina Noon (2005), Even Further West provides new work deepened and enriched by island life in another collection of poems written on land built by rock and fire bounded by sea and sky.

To order visit the Unsolicited Press websitePrice: $16.00. ISBN: 978-1-947021-17-4.

How to Bake a Planet, by Pete Mullineaux

From the Garden of Eden to the pavement of romance, outer space to bubble wrap, endangered species to climate change, Pete Mullineaux’s vivid and wide-ranging fourth collection explores personal-societal themes of loneliness, isolation, connection and dislocation; our ambivalent relationship with the natural world; ecological and environmental concerns; our confusions regarding science and religion; the elusive element of time. Philosophical, inventive, playful and fanciful at times, but always accessible and earthed by reality. (Salmon Poetry)

To order visit the Salmon Poetry website. Price: €12. ISBN: 978-1-910669-54-9.

Also by Pete Mullineaux in The Font, Making Rain: A report on a poetry lesson delivered as part of the Writers in School Scheme.