Wednesday, 6 February 2019


What is the language using us for? asked the poet, W S Graham.

When I first read these words I thought - that's an odd question, surely we use language, not the other way round.  But no, the moment we start to speak or write we are at the mercy of language in all its shape-shifting slipperiness.  T S Eliot wrote of 'the intolerable wrestle / With words and meanings'.  Language refuses to be pinned down.  It is forever changing.

On Saturday I heard Ifor ap Glyn, the National Poet of Wales, talk about the origins of some Welsh words.  His talk took in, amongst other things, handedness and the Mappa Mundi.  On Monday Michael Rosen (on BBC Radio 4's 'Word of Mouth') presented a programme on the origins of place-names.  I discovered that both Croydon and Saffron Walden are named from crocus-growing.  Croydon derives from the Latin Crocus while Saffron comes from the Arabic Zafaran via the Crusades.

I find the way language travels fascinating.  When I learned that our letter D can be traced back to an Egyptian pictograph signifying the folding door of a tent I wrote:


Language pitches its tent
next day strikes camp, moves on

it is the merchant's free trade
the fugitive's only baggage

it seeps into folds of skin
or burrs on a silk skirt

it moves on foot as a runaway slave
finds north by the blossoms's scent

it is the soldier's loot and the dictator's triumph
it is a letter from exile

it is the debtor who lives by borrowing
but never redeems a pledge

it leaves tracks in sand, snow, mud
and fisks about the fairground of the world

each word carries a trace of another
a tent-flap, a door, a tongue.

© Mary Robinson 2015

First published in The Way Summer 2015 

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