Treasure Language

By Steve Zeitlin, author of The Poetry of Everyday Life

“There are nine different words for the color blue in the Spanish Maya dictionary,” writes Earl Shorris, “but just three Spanish translations, leaving six [blue] butterflies that can be seen only by the Maya, proving that when a language dies six butterflies disappear from the consciousness of the earth.”

Over 6,500 languages—with at least that many words for butterflies—are spoken in our fragile world. By the end of the century more than half will disappear. Our languages are melting like the icecaps.

Khonsay: Poem Of Many Tongues, directed by Bob Holman and produced by myself and City Lore, is a tribute and call to action for linguistic diversity. A fifteen-minute motion poem (poem on film), each line comes from a different endangered or minority language, currently referred to as treasure languages. Forty-eight languages are spoken in their mother tongues as, line by line, language by language, the poem is created. In the Boro tongue of North India, itself a treasure language, khonsay means “to pick up something with great care, as it is rare or scarce.”


Many of the world’s most endangered languages and many of the planet’s endangered species appear in the same geographical areas, tying the disappearance of languages to the fate of the planet.


The written poem, along with background information and information on how to contribute to endangered language revitalization appears at www.khonsay.com.

As the poet W. S. Merwin notes at the close of Bob Holman and David Grubin’s film Language Matters, “Where will meanings be when the words are forgotten?” Scholars have shown that many of the world’s most endangered languages and many of the planet’s endangered species appear in the same geographical areas, tying the disappearance of languages to the fate of the planet. Languages, like the flora and fauna of the planet, are part of a world ecology.

We need to treasure language. “The true author of a poem,” writes Octavio Paz, “is neither the poet nor the reader, but language.” The Poetry of Everyday Life—the wellspring of meaning in our everyday lives—is embedded in words. With the loss of languages around the world humanity loses a portion of its inventive and creative genius, and six blue butterflies disappear from the consciousness of earth.

This blog post has been excerpted from a post in the City Lore blog and is used with permission. 


80140100767700l“By showing us that poetry lives everywhere,” writes Bob Holman in the preface to Steve Zeitlin’s new book, The Poetry of Everyday Life: Storytelling and the Art of Awareness, “Steve seems to make the whole world into a poem, with all of us collaborating daily in the writing of it.”

Zeitlin’s blog continues to tap into the poetic side of what we often take for granted: the stories we tell, the people we love, the metaphors used by scientists, even our sex lives. He is a folklorist, and wants to hear from you—because that’s where all the best material comes from. Please email your thoughts, stories and responses about the poetic side of life to steve@citylore.org.

Learn more about The Poetry of Everyday Life.

Treasure Language