American Collections blog

3 posts categorized "Endangered languages"

14 September 2020

Māori Language Week 2020

September 14th 2020 marks the start of Te Wiki o te Reo Māori (Māori Language Week): the annual celebration of a pivotal moment in the revitalisation of the language in Aotearoa/New Zealand. In this post, we look at the journey of te reo Māori (the Māori language) following the arrival of Europeans in the 19th century, and hear from Scott Ratima Nolan, a member of staff here at the British Library, about his own relationship with te reo (the language).

Te reo Māori in Aotearoa

The history of te reo, considered so sacred in Māori culture that it now has protection under the Treaty of Waitangi, is a tale of highs and lows. Before the 19th century, te reo Māori was predominately a spoken language, with meaning and information also communicated through symbols and patterns embedded in crafts such as weaving and carvings. Te reo (the language) developed as a written form in the beginning of the 19th century with the arrival of Christian missionaries, and dominated the early years of publishing in Aotearoa. The first books printed in the country were written in te reo: extracts from the Bible printed on the missionary press in the 1830s at Paihia in the country’s North Island. Early Māori language newspapers, such as the government-owned Ko te Karere o Nui Tireni (shelfmark LOU.CMISC67), began publication in the following decade.

Image showing the title page of Ko nga pukapuka o Paora te Apotoro ki te hunga o Epeha, o Piripai (Bible extracts) printed in 1835
This extract from the Bible in te reo Māori (Epistles to the Ephesians and Philippians, translated by Rev. William Williams) from the Paihia Missionary Press in 1835, is considered the first substantive book printed in Aotearoa/New Zealand. BL shelfmark C.23.a.15.(2.)

Te reo remained the most widely spoken language of Aotearoa during the first half of the 19th century, with Europeans learning the language in order to communicate, trade and convert the Māori population. However, this changed with the increase of settlers arriving in the country, and Europeans emerged as the majority population by the second half of the 19th century. The English language now dominated, forcing assimilation among Māori through suppression of the use of te reo in schools and discouraging its use in public life. Confined to use in the home, te reo Māori became at risk of extinction by the mid-20th century. The Māori language, culture and identity are intricately entwined, with te reo considered taonga (treasure) in Māori culture. Taonga require protection and this prompted a revitalisation of the language in the 1970s. On September 14th 1972, Parliament was called upon to allow te reo to be taught in schools: a place where its use had previously been actively discouraged, and often forbidden. Language recovery programmes began in earnest and te reo Māori became increasingly heard on radio and television, and read in Māori newspapers, magazines and books. Te reo education systems were established including Kōhanga reo and Kura kaupapa which immersed students in Māori language and culture. Following a successful language claim under the Treaty of Waitangi which argued that, as a taonga, the language deserved protection, te reo Māori was made an official language of Aotearoa/New Zealand through the Māori Language Act in 1987. The Māori Language Commission (Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori), was set up in the same year to promote the language, and published guides such as Māori for the office = Te reo Māori mō te tari (shelfmark YK.2000.a.5008) and Te Matatiki  contemporary Māori words (shelfmark YK.1996.a.20438) to promote use of te reo in daily life.  

Front cover of Māori for the office = Te reo Māori mō te tari (2nd ed)
Guides such as this one were published by the Māori Language Commission in the 1990s to encourage the use of te reo in every day life. BL shelfmark YK.2000.a.5008

The Commission also exists to expand the language, and they have recently developed Māori terminology for a very serious 21st century situation: COVID-19. New terms to enter the Māori language this year to support the fight against COVID-19 include: 

  • Mate Korona = Corona Virus 
  • Patuero ā-ringa = Hand Sanitiser
  • Tū Tīrara = Social Distancing 
  • Rere ā-Hapori = Community Transmission 

Maori Language Commission, 2020 

The aim is for Aotearoa to eventually become a bi-lingual country, and while Te Wiki o te Reo Māori (Māori Language Week) celebrates that crucial moment in the trajectory of te reo in 1972, it also acts a source of inspiration and encouragement for all New Zealanders to connect or re-connect with te reo Māori. In doing so, they help safeguard a language deeply woven into their country’s history and identity. Te reo Māori is also safeguarded outside Aotearoa through diaspora communities, including here in the UK. The Ngāti Rānana London Māori Club keep the Māori culture and language strong and proud in New Zealanders living in London and the rest of the UK. Ngāti Rānana also meet to learn, practise and share knowledge of kapa haka: traditional performing arts. Anyone with an interest in Māori culture is welcome at their regular gatherings at the New Zealand High Commission in London (moved online during COVID-19).

 

A personal connection with te reo Māori 

Although the British Library is the national library of the UK, our staff are international and have personal connections to countries, languages and cultures all over the world. In the story below, Conservation Support Assistant, Scott Ratima Nolan, explains his own relationship with te reo Māori.

It hasn’t been easy to write about being tangata whenua: being Māori here in the UK. When I think about Aotearoa, the land I call home, it is a strong wrench. The ties of a thousand flaxen cords are interwoven with both Pasifika and Pākehā (White NZ) threads, bound with the hands of ancestors known, and (to my shame) unknown. Ever does it pull; He taura here whenua. Such are the ties that bind. 
 
Growing up in South Auckland, that North Island city of effervescent Polynesian culture, I was wrapped in the warmth of my whānau and a proud people. My father, a man as gifted as Herodotus in blending truth and fiction, maintained my first language was te reo Māori. While this is debatable, I certainly was strong in my tikanga (custom or practice); the first flag I ever knew was the United Tribes of New Zealand. I remember my visit to the Auckland War Museum as a child, where I was moved to tears in seeing the taonga, the treasures of my people, on display. It resolved me, even then, to become a Kaitiaki: a custodian. And, emblematic of my own shared bloodlines, caring for the heritage and the taonga of not just my own, but many cultures. 
 
Now, as any reproachful teenager would tell you, growing up is hard. And in moving to the South Island of New Zealand, I was confronted by another culture: that of the South Island Pākehā. My school had no legitimate te reo course. Culture was limited to theatre and musicals. Speaking te reo out loud was looked down on. In history, we spent an entire term on the Irish Civil War, but knew next to nothing on the New Zealand Wars, the Treaty of Waitangi and Māori land confiscation. Frustratingly, both teachers and my fellow students were aghast at my claims to be ‘native’. I looked like them; why would I want to be any different? In a grand spectacle of Pākehā dominance, in front of what seemed to be the entire school, my Principal forced me to remove my Pounamu, a sacred greenstone (which my father had forbidden me to remove), from around my neck. The trenches and palisades of my cultural pride and resistance were assaulted and hewn down into the cold embrace of southern conformity.  And, while I rebuilt my confidence somewhat over my university years, I had lost a lot of my pride, and my language. There were scars across my heart, and it was with some relief that I left Aotearoa to come to the UK. I hoped I could reconnect with my culture by becoming a Kaitiaki, working with heritage collections. 
 
However, attempting to build a career in heritage institutions here can be a real struggle for BAME and Indigenous peoples. To work in this sector, I found I had to suppress my culture: a necessity for those doors to open. I did this not out of shame over being Māori, but rather the sadness of not being accepted and welcomed here (especially in this sector) as such. And for years since, I railed against those ties that bound me until they diminished. And I stopped my ears to the whispers of my tīpuna (ancestors) who know me as Māori until they quietened. I even stopped using what te reo I knew, because I had grown up understanding that my language was sacred, and I felt I profaned it by using it when I did not honour my people. And thus, I lived, but I lived with a hole in my heart. 
 
But the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement was a real catalyst for me. That hole in my heart cast a long shadow across my soul, and a real despondency overtook me. This despondency rose not just from those events, but also the slow dawning realisation of how much I had given up just to be here to work in a field I had, in ruthless irony, chosen as a place where I could honour my people by being a Kaitiaki, a custodian, to the treasures we hold here.    
 
A taniwha, a guardian spirit that had long lain dormant inside me, had awoken, and it was hungry for change. And somehow, I gained the strength to put aside fear of exclusion, embarrassment or castigation, to speak up and identify myself as Māori.  And I found a workplace that is incredibly supportive and responsive to the BLM movement, and is taking steps to become more inclusive: to accept me as I am. In a matter of weeks, I was working alongside others on the Front Hall busts reinterpretation, which, in redressing some of our collection legacies, has restored Mana to both my people and the British Library. 
 
So, in this year’s Te Wiki o te Reo Māori, I’m celebrating my rebirth. I’m Māori, and I’m proud. I take courage from the very language itself, which at one point faced extinction and has come back so strong. Te reo Māori is an essential part of my culture, and I’ve made it my resolution to relearn it. I’m starting now, haltingly, to use the words of my people in every day speech and in email, to celebrate and share my culture, and to reach out to my friends back home in Aotearoa: to not only kōrero (talk), but also to whakarongo, (listen). 
 
And every word I speak tears down another brick in the walls I have built up, filling the hole in my heart. And at long last I can hear my ancestors again.  
 
Tihei Mauri ora! Behold the breath of life! 
 
Scott Ratima Nolan 
Ngāti Kahungunu ki Wairoa 

 

Glossary 

Aotearoa: ‘The Land of the Long White Cloud’ the Māori name for New Zealand

Kaitiaki: Guardian or a custodian, someone who works to protect and safeguard 

Pākehā: White New Zealanders of (usually) European descent 

Pasifika: Peoples of the Pacific or of Pacific Island descent, who call Aotearoa home 

Pounamu: NZ nephrite jade, or Greenstone. A sacred stone considered taonga, or treasured. Often used in jewellery or weapons with a deep spiritual connection  

Tangata whenua: ‘The People of the Land’ how we as Māori often refer to ourselves; the indigenous inhabitants of this land 

Taniwha: a Mythological being, often found in water. They can be Kaitiaki (guardians) or monsters punishing those that breached tikanga (custom) 

Taonga: the treasures, artefacts or resources that are considered of great value, including our language 

Tikanga: the customs, culture, etiquette and practices of being Māori 

Tīpuna: alternatively spelled as tupuna, this refers to Ancestors and grandparents 

Whānau: Family and extended family 
 

Further reading: 

Belich, J. (2015). The New Zealand wars and the Victorian interpretation of racial conflict. Auckland, New Zealand: Auckland University Press. BL shelfmark ELD.DS.322292

Cooper, G. (2004). Te rerenga ā te pīrere : a longitudinal study of Kōhanga reo and Kura kaupapa Māori students. Pūrongo tuatahi = Phase 1 report. Wellington, N.Z.: New Zealand Council for Educational Research (NZCER). BL shelfmark YD.2010.b.826 

Curnow, J., Hopa, N.K. and McRae, J. (2013). He pitopito kōrero nō te perehi Māori = Readings from the Māori-language press. Auckland, New Zealand: Auckland University Press. BL shelfmark ELD.DS.322290 

Higgin, R. Rewi, P. and Olsen-Reeder, P. (2014). The value of the Māori language = Te hua o te reo Māori. Wellington, New Zealand: Huia Publishers. BL shelfmark YP.2014.a.6419 

Karetu, T. and Milroy, W. (2019). He kupu tuku iho : ko te reo Māori te tatau ki te ao. Auckland, New Zealand: Auckland University Press. BL shelfmark ELD.DS.306747

Moon, P. (2016). Ka ngaro te reo: Māori language under siege in the nineteenth century. Dunedin, New Zealand: Otago University Press. BL shelfmark YC.2020.a.2630 

Moon, P. (2018). Killing te reo Māori. Palmerston North, New Zealand: Campus Press. BL Shelfmark YD.2018.a.3686 

Williams, H.W. (1924). A Bibliography of Printed Maori to 1900. Dominion Museum Monograph. no. 7. Wellington, New Zealand. BL shelfmark Ac.1990.ca. 

References: 

Williams, W. (trans). (1835) Ko nga pukapuka o Paora te Apotoro ki te hunga o Epeha, o Piripai /Epistles to the Ephesians and Philippians. Paihia, New Zealand: Pahia Missionary Press. BL shelfmark C.23.a.15.(2.)
 
Ko te karere o nui tireni. (1842). Auckland; New Zealand. BL shelfmark LOU.CMISC67

Māori Language Commission. (1997) Māori for the office = Te reo Māori mō te tari (2nd ed).  Auckland, New Zealand:  Oxford University Press. BL shelfmark YK.2000.a.5008 

Māori Language Commission. (1996). Te Matatiki : contemporary Māori words. Auckland, New Zealand: Oxford University Press. BL shelfmark YK.1996.a.20438 

Māori Language Commission. (2020). Māori terminology for Covid-19 [online]. Available at: https://www.tetaurawhiri.govt.nz/en/te-reo-maori/press-releases/maori-terminology-for-covid-19/  

 

Lucy Rowland, Curator Oceania Published Collections (post-1850) 

 

24 April 2020

Poems from the edge of extinction (part 2)

Welcome to part 2 of our blog on poetry in endangered and lesser-known languages in collaboration with our European Studies colleaguesIn part 1 of this blog, we considered examples of poetry in Tongan and Yucatec Maya, and here in part 2 we look at examples in Patwa/Jamaican Creole and Yolngu Matha. If you've never heard of these languages, read on!

Patwa/Jamaican Creole

Front cover of book Miss Lou : Louise Bennett and Jamaican Culture by Mervyn Morris
Miss Lou : Louise Bennett and Jamaican Culture by Mervyn Morris. BL shelfmark YKL.2014.a.5466

Bun an Cheese by Louise Bennett-Coverley

Dem Bwoy dah jeer Miss Matty,
An a mock her an tease,
Dem a kill demself wid laugh mah
An a call her Bun an Cheese
 
Dem sey from Good Friday mawnin
Her jawbone no get ease
Mawnin  noon an night bedtime
She was nyamin Bun and Cheese
 
Fe breakfuss lunch an dinna
She got so-so bun and cheese
She kea it go a church an
Movin pictures if you please
 
She no count saltfish an ackee
Cut her y’eye pon rice an peas
Hear her “me put pot pon fire
When me got me Bun and Cheese!”
 
Easter time gwine come an go weh
Days an moment fly like breeze
But as long as Matty live dem bwoy
Gwine call her Bun and Cheese!

 

English translation

Those boys jeer Miss Matty
And Mock and tease her
They are killing themselves with laugh
And call her Bun and Cheese
 
They say from Good Friday morning
Her jawbone got no ease
Morning noon and nighttime
She was eating Bun and Cheese
 
For Breakfast lunch and dinner
She got only bun and cheese
She took it to church and
Moving pictures if you please
 
She does not count saltfish and ackee
Cut her eye on rice and peas
Hear her “I put my pot on the fire
When I got my Bun and Cheese!”
 
Easter time come and go away
Days and moment fly like breeze
But as long as Matty live those boys
Going to call her Bun and Cheese!

 

Coming off the heels of Easter, this is one of my favourite Louise Bennett-Coverley poems. “Miss Lou” as she was affectionately called is one of the most loved and highly respected Jamaican poets.  She uses the themes of food culture and local traditions in this timeless work. These themes highlight the love affair the protagonist “Miss Matty” has with the popular Jamaican Easter treat “bun and cheese”, closely associated with the popular English “hot cross buns”.  The use of the Jamaican dialect, Patois (Patwa) by Miss Lou makes this poem even more expressive and exciting. Regardless of the time of day, place and alternative food options Miss Matty is only interested in her tasty treat. This poem encapsulates the happy atmosphere that surrounds one of Jamaica’s most delightful Easter traditions.

Chantelle Richardson (Chevening Fellow at the British Library and Special Collections Librarian at the National Library of Jamaica)

 

Yolngu Matha  (Australia)

*Please note: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that these pages may contain images, voices or names of deceased persons in photographs, film, audio recordings or printed material.*

Illustration of four kangaroos grazing
British Library Image taken from page 360 of 'New Homes for the Old Country. A personal experience of the political and domestic life, the industries, and the natural history of Australia and New Zealand. ... With ... illustrations' (BL shelfmark HMNTS 10492.g.19.)

 When a list of 200 Aboriginal Australian words was recorded in the north of Australia during James Cook’s voyage in 1770, it was assumed that these words would be spoken by all the Indigenous people in the country. One of the words on this list was ‘kangaroo’ (kanguru or gangurru), which was provided by the Guugu Yimidhirr people in what is now known as Far North Queensland. Yet, when European settlers arrived in 1788, in what would become Sydney, and tried to make use of the list, the word 'kangaroo’ was met with confusion by the local Aboriginal people who believed this to be an English word. Only later did the Europeans realise that the First people of Australia spoke more than 250 different languages, including 800 dialectal varieties, at the time of European settlement. For a visual representation of this language distribution, see the AIATSIS map of Indigenous Australia which attempts to represent all the language, tribal or nation groups of the First peoples of Australia. Of the 160 varieties still spoken, only 13 are spoken by children and 90% of Indigenous Australian languages are in danger of dying out.  

One of the 13 languages still spoken by children, and in somewhat less danger, is the language group known as Yolngu Matha (or Yolŋu Matha). Yolngu Matha, has around 2,000 speakers and is a member of the Pama-Nyungan family of languages. It is spoken by the Yolngu people in the north-eastern part of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory of Australia. There are a dozen dialects of Yolngu Matha, each with its own name and with significant variation between them, though there is some mutual understanding between the dialects. During the 1930s, missionaries developed various ways of writing Yolngu Matha, which are still used today, though there is no standard spelling system. This linguistic complexity of variant spellings, and clan and dialect distinctions in Yolngu Matha (as with all the Indigenous Australian languages), has now been mapped to a great extent in the AUSTLANG database. This landmark project by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) provides the means for institutions to begin the process of attributing the correct language to bibliographic records, as is being done through crowd sourcing at the National Library of Australia.

Front cover of Nganajungu yagu by Charmaine Papertalk Green
Papertalk-Green, C. (2019). Nganajungu yagu. Victoria, Australia : Cordite Books. BL shelfmark YD.2019.a.5930

When we look at the British Library records for poetry by Indigenous Australians, although we can find recent examples written in English (see Ellen van Neerven, Alison Whittaker, or Lionel Fogarty), those written in Indigenous Australian languages are far scarcer (although a welcome example is Nganajungu yagu by Charmaine Papertalk-Green which mixes Wajarri, Badimaya, and English - shelfmark YD.2019.a.5930). And while we can attribute this partly to historical collection practices which favoured non-Indigenous languages (and similar discrimination in the publishing industry), this is also due to the history in Indigenous cultures of spoken word over written language. 

Front cover of Song spirals
Gay'wu Group of Women (2019). Songspirals: Sharing women's wisdom of Country through songlines. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin. (awaiting shelfmark)

A particularly rich poetic oral tradition in Indigenous Australian culture can be seen in songlines. Also known song spirals or song cycles, these living archives of cultural knowledge and wisdom are preserved and passed on through song. Using cues from the land, sky and sea to navigate through space and time, songlines are handed down through generations. A member of the community acts as the custodian of the songline and these are rarely shared with outsiders. For this blog, I have chosen to highlight a 2019 Yolngu Matha collection, Songspirals: Sharing women's wisdom of Country through songlines  by the Gay'wu Group of Women (Allen and Unwin 2019 - awaiting cataloguing at the British Library). Here women’s roles in songlines are explored and the authors share five song spirals in Gumatj, a dialect of Dhuwal (also Dual, Duala), one of the Yolngu Matha languages.  

Below is an excerpt from Wuymirri, the Whale 
 
Nguruku miyamanarawu Dhangaḻa aaaaaaaa... 
Waṉa nyerrpu miyaman ngunha marrtji Bangupanngu. 
Miyaman marrtji Balwarri Nepaway, Maywuṉdjiwuy. 
 
Bawaywuyngu miyamara Dhuḻuḻwuynguru; 
Bawaywuyngu miyamara Rrawuḻuḻwuynguru; 
Nguruku miyaman ngarra marrtji Rrawuḻuḻwuynguru. 
 
Of that body of water I sing, I sing of the body of water. 
The arm of the paddler is knowledgeable, over there is Bangupanngu. 
I am singing about Balwarri, the whale, Nepaway, the open sea. 
Of the place between sunrise and sunset I sing, 
 
Where the whales swim with open mouths, scooping water,  
   filtering fish; 
A pod of whales, flipping and jumping, playing and roaming; 
A gathering of many people; 
For that I sing Rrawuḻuḻ, the place where the whales 
   are feeding.  
I sing for those people, the ones far away. 

 

In Indigenous Australian culture, languages with few or no speakers are described as ‘sleeping’, and there are some welcome initiatives to re-awaken these sleeping languages. These include the formation of the AIATSIS foundation to record languages and songlines and publish 15 dictionaries of languages a year over the next decade. An exciting effort to re-awaken language through poetry has been developed through the Poetry in First Languages project, devised by Gunai poet, Kirli Saunders. In this program, Indigenous poets, Elders and Language Custodians work directly with Indigenous students to write poetry in their cultural language. 


To hear Yolngu Matha in a musical context, take a listen to the award-winning Yolngu rapper Baker Boy who seamlessly mixes this language with English in his performances such as 'Marryuna' (Let's Dance) below.

 

 

Lucy Rowland, Curator of Oceania Published Collections post-1850

 

Further reading:

General

Chris McCabe (ed.), Poems from the Edge of Extinction (London, 2019), [BL shelfmark: ELD.DS.463137] 

Read more about the Endangered Poetry Project

Patwa/Jamaican creole

Morris, M. (2014). Miss Lou : Louise Bennett and Jamaican Culture. BL shelfmark YKL.2014.a.5466

Bennett, L., & Morris, M. (2003). Auntie Roachy seh. Kingston: Sangster's Book Stores. BL shelfmark YD.2005.a.1825

Bennett, L (1983) Selected Poems. Kingston, Jm. : Sangster's Book Stores. BL shelfmark X.958/29332

Bennett, L (1949) Jamaican dialect poems. Kingston , Jm : printed by the Gleaner Co. BL shelfmark X.909/29896

Yolngu Matha  

Dyungayan, G., & Cooke, S. (2014). George Dyungayan's Bulu Line : A West Kimberley song cycle. Glebe, NSW: Puncher & Wattmann. BL shelfmark YD.2017.a.916 


Gay'wu Group of Women (2019). Songspirals: Sharing women's wisdom of Country through songlines. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin. (awaiting shelfmark) 


Papertalk-Green, C. (2019). Nganajungu yagu. Victoria, Australia : Cordite Books. BL shelfmark YD.2019.a.5930 

 

23 April 2020

Poems from the edge of extinction (part 1)

For this blog, and in collaboration with our European Studies colleagues, we have taken inspiration from last year’s timely anthology of poems, Poems from the Edge of Extinction, edited by poet and UK National Poetry Librarian, Chris McCabe. Published in 2019 (also the UN’s International Year of Indigenous Languages), the book celebrates linguistic diversity through poetic expression, gathering 50 poems in languages identified as endangered and presenting them in both the original and in English translation. It’s got us thinking about poetry written in lesser-known languages in the Americas and Oceania collections. In part 1 of this blog, we consider examples of poetry in Tongan and Yucatec Maya, while part 2 (to follow) will look at examples in Patwa/Jamaican creole and Yolngu Matha. If you've never heard of these languages, read on!


Tongan (Polynesia)

Tongan (Lea Faka-Tonga) is the national language of the Kingdom of Tonga, a Polynesian nation of 169 islands in the southern Pacific Ocean, and the only monarchy in the Pacific. Tongan is a Polynesian language of the Austronesian family and is most closely related to the Samoan language of the same family. There are around 190,000 Tongan speakers with nearly half of these living overseas in Aotearoa/New Zealand, Australia or the United States. Though not on the endangered language list, Tongan, like many Pacific languages, is in danger of an eventual language shift to English. As outlined above, the migration of many native Tongan speakers is a predictor for this, as well as the predominance of English in online environments, and with English being increasingly associated with greater educational and employment opportunities.  In an effort to counter this and preserve Tongan as the native language among young people in the country, the Minister of Education introduced a new language policy in 2012. Children are now taught solely in Tongan upon starting school, with English only gradually introduced at later stages. The policy aims for students to be fluent in both languages by completion of their education. Other efforts to preserve the language and culture among Tongans, includes the annual Tongan Language Week for Tongans living overseas in Aotearoa/New Zealand.

Traditionally a spoken language, the first written examples of Tongan were made by missionaries using the Latin script in the 19th century, with the current spellings decided by the Privy Council of Tonga in 1943. The Tongan script uses three different diacritic marks to guide pronunciation and meaning: the glottal stop, the macron, and the stress mark, which often requires careful proofreading in text. The language is notable for having multiple speech registers based on status and formality, including one specifically for use when speaking to or about the reigning monarch or deities. With its strong oral over written tradition, Tongan language poetry is not abundant in our print collections. However, I would like to take this opportunity to highlight a translated collection of the poetry of Tonga’s longest reigning monarch, Queen Sālote Tupou III, Tonga's poet on the throne from 1918 to her death in 1965. Songs & poems of Queen Sālote (2004) features 114 works by the monarch in Tongan with translations into English by the Pacific languages academic, Dr. Melenaite Taumoefolau.

Front cover of Songs & poems of Queen Sālote
Songs & poems of Queen Sālote / translated by Melenaite Taumoefolau ; edited by Elizabeth Wood-Ellem. Nukuʻalofa : Vavaʻu Press, 2004. YD.2009.b.1963.

Some of you may already be familiar with Queen Sālote as the head of state who received uproarious applause on Queen Elizabeth II’s Coronation Day in 1953, when she refused to lower the hood of her carriage in the driving rain, and instead laughed and waved joyfully at the crowds lining the procession route. Her spirit and warmth on the day prompted newspaper editor, Jack Fishman, to write a song aptly titled The Queen of Tonga (Music Collections VOC/1953/FISHMAN) which was then made popular by Edmundo Ros and his orchestra (Sound Collections 1CD0189529). 

Cover of the music score The Queen Of Tonga by Jack Fishman
The Queen of Tonga’ by Jack Fishman 1953 (Music Collections VOC/1953/FISHMAN)

However, you may not know that she is also celebrated as poet and song writer whose work, comprising of over 100 compositions, has played a major role in the preservation of the Tongan language and Tonga’s rich cultural heritage. Historian and biographer of Queen Sālote, Elizabeth Wood-Ellem, wrote in Songs & poems of Queen Sālote that: 

The Queen was… acclaimed as an extremely gifted poet. Queen Sālote spent many hours perfecting the words of her poems, and she invited groups of musicians to come to the Palace in the evenings to work with her. They often stayed until the early hours of the morning. Poetry that was set to music consisted of love songs (both happy and sad), laments for deaths of chiefs and those close to her, lullabies for her grandchildren, and songs written especially for the accompaniment of dance, such as lakalaka and mā‘ulu‘ulu. Love songs (hiva kakala) were often used as accompaniment to the solo dance for a woman, the tau‘olunga. (pp.279-281) 

Tongan language poetry makes great use of heliaki (metaphoric language) to make culture specific references to the knowledge shared by Tongan speakers. This can make literal translations difficult without using annotations, as the meanings and connotations of kinship connections in the heliaki often require explanation to non-Tongan speakers. We can see an example of this in Queen Sālote’s poem, The Queen’s Tears at the Passing of Tangata o’ Ha’amea, which employs the technique to bemoan that Ha’amea (a prominent Tongan chief) left no heir: 


Dear home of Niukasa 
Standing at the base of Sia 
With the stream called Fotu ‘afinema 
Once trickling but now empty 
Not a drop is left 

Diplomatic use of heliaki can be seen in her poem, ‘Uno 'o Sangone. Composed during World War 2, the poem is ostensibly about the Polynesian myth of the turtle Sangone, but draws heavily on the shared knowledge of the long history and connections between Tonga and its neighbour, Samoa. Through this use of heliaki, the Queen aimed to reassure Tongans and remind them of the importance of allies and unity during wartime:  

Ne‘ine‘i hako mei he tonga 
Tapa ē‘uhila mei lulunga 
He na‘e mana ē Feingakotone 
Fakahake ē‘uno ‘o Sangone. 
 
No wonder the gales blew from the south 
Lightening flashed from the west. 
The Feingakotone* thundered 
For Sangone’s shell was brought forth. 

Black and white photo of Queen Sālote with her husband Viliami Tungī Mailefihi
Salote Tupou III, Queen of Tonga and her consort Prince Uiliami Tungi. Ref: 1/2-005251-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22839741

However, to really appreciate the Tongan language and Queen Sālote’s work, you should enjoy it in the manner through which it was intended, such as this contemporary performance of Loka Siliva (Silver Lock or Locket), a love song (hiva kakala) she wrote for her husband, sung by the Tonga Creative Collective, and with translations from Tongan to English. 

For examples of more recent poetry from the Kingdom of Tonga in the British Library collections, see also Hingano : selected poems, 1966-1986 / by Konai Helu Thaman (BL shelfmark YA.1996.a.3558), and Mauri ola : contemporary Polynesian poems in English / edited by Albert Wendt, Reina Whaitiri & Robert Sullivan (BL shelfmark DRT ELD.DS.322430).

*Feingakotone is a place in the Kingdom of Tonga 

Lucy Rowland (Curator, Oceania Published Collections post-1850)

 

Yucatec Maya (Mexico) 

 

Image of the poet Briceida Cuevas Cob speaking at a book event in 2018
Mexican poet, Briceida Cuevas Cob. Photograph by Benjamín Anaya / Secretaría de Cultura CDMX. 2018. Creative Commons https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Briceida Cuevas Cob is a well-published poet and cultural promoter in her native Yucatan, South-Mexico. The poem below is from the verse collection U yok’ol auat pek’ ti kuxtal pek’ / El quejido del perro en su existencia [The growl of the dog in its existence]. In her collection, she captures the violence and harshness of Mayan existence through the violence suffered by these abandoned stray dogs.  
 
Four poems from this collection were published in Latin American Literature Today, May 2018: Translated by Arthur Dixon. Here is one of them: 
 

VI 

¿Máax ku tich’ik chuchul uaj yétel u xdzik k’ab, 
u dzókole, 
ku jósik u xnoj k’ab u tial u jadz? 

Pek ta p’atik a yúmil, 
Pek ta chíik a yúmil, 
Pek’ a yama a yúmil: 
majant a uak’ti uínik, 
tiólal u choj xan u k’a u chí, 
ka u ch’ul luum, 
ka u pak’, je bix teché, u náatil kuxtal. 
Majant a uich ti uínik, 

tiólal u pákat yétel a k’om ólal. 
Majant a nej ti uínik 
tiólal u bik’ibik’tik, yétel a kímak ólal. 
kun alak ti: KS, KS, KS; 
tiólal u tákik ichil u yok yétel a sútal, 
kun alak ti: B’J, B’J, B’J. 
Majant a ti uínik, 
tiólal u yusnítik utz yan chen tu k’ab chichán pal. 
Jálibe, 
majant a dzaay uínik, 
tiólal u chíik u túkul. 

 

VI 

Who is he who holds out the stale tortilla with his left hand 
and then 
raises his right hand to strike? 

Dog, don’t you abandon your owner, 
dog, don’t you bite your lord, 
dog, you love your master: 
lend your tongue to the man, 
so the drool drips down him too, 
so it wets the earth, 
and sows, like you, the understanding of existence. 
Lend your eyes to the man, 
so he sees with your sadness. 
Lend your tail to the man, 
so he wags it with joy 
when they call him: KS, KS, KS; 
so he tucks it between his legs with your shame 
when they tell him: B’J, B’J, B’J; 
lend him your nose 
so he sniffs the goodness that only exists in the hands of a child. 
Lastly, 
lend him your teeth 
so he bites his own conscience. 

I have chosen this poem, because I remember stray dogs as a striking feature during my first visit to Mexico as an intern at UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund) after finishing my MA. An older Austrian colleague with a proper job adopted a stray dog, when a group of us came home from a weekend trip. Looking back, this must have seemed a foolish act to many local people. Yet, we were a group of young and idealistic Mexicans and foreigners and this act of kindness towards the stray dog is stuck in my mind. 

When I read Briceida Cuevas Cob’s dog poems, I think back to the many mangy dogs on dusty roads I saw in Mexico and our friend’s little act of defiance in taking one of them in. I like how Cueva Cob in her poem binds together mundane experiences of ubiquitous violence with deep philosophical questions about life. And I like the rhythm of the poem in the English translation by Arthur Dixon. In the Maya original, which I cannot read, I enjoy looking at the distribution of letters on the page, strange and beautiful to me, unlike the spelling of any other language I can read. There are so many ‘k’ and ‘u’. It looks mysterious to me and makes me want to hear the poem recited in Yucatec Maya. 

If you feel the same, you can hear another poem by Cuevas Cob set to music by contemporary Mexican composer Hilda Paredes, who lives in London. Our library has the music score of two pieces composed to Cuevas Cob’s work.  One is called Codex of Enigmas/ Códice de Adivinancas [Scores at BL Music Collections g.1465.v.(2.)] and is a piece for solo viola and a speaker reciting the poem written in Maya language . You can find a video of a performance in France on the composer’s webpage.

Or if you prefer a different tune, check out the video from Tihorappers Crew, from Tihosuco, Quintana Roo (also in the Yucatec peninsula). It starts in Maya language and then switches between Spanish and Maya. Even if you don’t know Spanish or Maya, I think you’ll be able to hear the difference between the two languages and can enjoy the beat.  

Iris Bachmann, Curator of Latin American Published Collections (post 1850) 

 

Further reading:

General

Chris McCabe (ed.), Poems from the Edge of Extinction (London, 2019), [BL shelfmark: ELD.DS.463137] 

Read more about the Endangered Poetry Project here

Tongan

Helu, 'I. F. (2006). Ko e heilala tangitangi ʿo Sālote Pilolevu : Ko e tohi vete ʿo e fatu ʿa e kau Punake Tonga ʿo tuku he tumuʿakiʹ ʿe he ngaahi maaʿimoa ʿa e Taʿahine Kuini Sālote Tupou III : ʿoku fokotuʿu mo fakatoputapuʿi atu ʿa e kiʿi tohi ni (dedicate) kia Pilinisesi Sālote. Nukualofa, Tonga: ʿAtenisi Press. Shelfmark YF.2010.a.28034 


Helu, 'I. F., P., & Janman, P. (2012). On Tongan poetry. Warkworth, Auckland, N.Z.: Atuanui Press. Shelfmark YD.2019.a.4936 


Otsuka, Y. (2007). Making a Case for Tongan as an Endangered Language. The Contemporary Pacific, vol. 19, no. 2, 2007, pp. 446–473. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23724904.  


Smith, K. and 'Otunuku, M. (2015). Heliaki: transforming literacy in Tonga through metaphor. The SoJo Journal: Educational Foundations and Social Justice Education 1 (1), pp. 99-112.Cardiff University, http://orca.cf.ac.uk/id/eprint/86002  


Wood-Ellem, E. (2004). Songs & poems of Queen Sālote / translated by Melenaite Taumoefolau ; edited by Elizabeth Wood-Ellem ; with essays by HRH Princess Nanasipauʻu Tukuʻaho ... [et al.]. Nukuʻalofa: Vavaʻu Press. Shelfmark YD.2009.b.1963 

 

Yucatec Maya

Briceida Cuevas Cob, Poetry by Briceida Cuevas Cob, Poetry without Borders, 2005, Nov issue, Accessed 22 April 2020:


Briceida Cuevas Cob, ‘Two poems by Briceida Cuevas Cob’, World Literature Today., 2010, 84(1), 16-17. [BL shelfmark: 9356.558600]  


Paul Worley, ‘On translating indigenous languages’, Asymptote, June 7, 2018. Accessed on 22 April 2020:
 

American Collections blog recent posts

Archives

Tags

Other British Library blogs