Patricia Forde’s The List, her first book for children to be released in the U.S., is set in a world where language has been restricted to 500 words. Forde is a speaker of Irish Gaelic, mistakenly considered by some to be a dead language, and knows a thing or two about the preciousness of words.
One language dies every 14 days. As many as half the world’s minority languages are expected to be extinct by the end of the century. My native language is one of those. We call it Irish, the rest of the world calls it Gaelic. Reports of the death of the Irish language have been, to misquote Oscar Wilde, greatly exaggerated. The language is still alive—it is in the critical care unit and the prognosis isn’t great, but it has a heartbeat. That heartbeat resides in places like Connemara, where I live.
Here, in the west of Ireland, people still speak Irish on a daily basis, in the shop, at school, at work. But it is a language with fewer words than ever before and that list grows shorter every year. Does that matter? I think it does. There are words in Irish that don’t translate into English. They don’t translate because they carry within them the psychology and the history of a people. The word macnas is a good example. Macnas is the term used to describe the mad cavorting of a calf on first being introduced to a meadow. How do you say that in English? You don’t. Or what about fíbín? It’s the way an animal reacts after it has been bitten by a gadfly. Those words reflect our relationship with our landscape and our traditional way of life. A language, it seems, is more than the sum of its words.
When I began to write The List, I didn’t know that one of the things it was about was language. I only found that out when I had written it, but I was not surprised. Language has played a big part in my life. I have been bilingual since I was 4 years old, and for most of my life I have been aware that we may be the last generation to speak Irish. In the novel, the story opens in Ark, where the list of legal words has just been reduced from 700 to 500.
With every generation in Ireland, the list of commonly used Irish words grows shorter. Words that were once commonplace are now exotic, words that were used every day on farms are now preserved only in dictionaries, words used to describe certain elements in nature no longer exist at all. When we lose the words to describe the landscape—the words for a hundred different types of seaweed, for example, or the word for a tune that you can’t get out of your head, the word for the madness of a newborn calf—when we lose those words, do we also lose the ability to see that diversity of experience in our own lives? And if we don’t see the diversity, can we lose something invaluable, almost without knowing it?
In The List, the young protagonist, Letta, wonders how we can dream if we don’t have words, how we can even hope if the word itself is now forbidden. Language and our relationship with it is a deeply mysterious thing. An Irish philosopher, John O’Donoghue, once said: The place between silence and language is where you find poetry. I love that thought. I hope The List inspires people to see that every word matters, to see that we need words to forge relationships and to fix them when they fall apart. We need to respect the need for our words to be accurate and exact, not to throw them about without due care and responsibility. How many words do we need to survive? As many as we can remember, and if that isn’t enough, then as many as we can invent. Every word matters. Every language matters. If we use words wisely, they are an enormous force for good and will help us to know exactly who we are. What could be more important than that?
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The List.
Author photo credit Philip Smyth.