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Slam Poet Bob Holman Tracks Endangered Languages in New Film

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Bob Holman with Rupert Manmurulu in Australia. (Photo: David Grubin)

Bob Holman is a word man. His decades of frenetic activity in the slam poetry, hip-hop and spoken-word scenes once led Henry Louis Gates, Jr. to call him “the postmodern promoter who has done more to bring poetry to cafes and bars than anyone since Ferlinghetti.”

Now, Holman is pouring his love for words into a movement to save the world’s endangered languages. There are roughly 6,500 languages spoken around the world today; linguists estimate that by the end of the century, that number could be cut in half. That’s right: Some 3,000 languages could soon pass away from this sweet earth.

“Every language contains a singular way of looking at the world,” Holman tells me by email. “The brain may be infinite, but we’ve only been able to invent 6,000 of these ways of looking at things. To lose one of these is a tragedy.”

Aron Jones performing at the Y Tap Pub in Wales. Photo by James Callanan.
Aron Jones performing at the Y Tap Pub in Wales. (Photo: James Callanan)

The precipitous disappearance of mother tongues is the subject of Language Matters with Bob Holman, a new documentary by David Grubin that airs nationwide on PBS in January (Jan. 25, 6-8 pm on KQED). Holman and Grubin will be at the Exploratorium on Saturday, Jan. 24, to screen excerpts from the film with language activists from the Bay Area’s Hawaiian and Native American communities. The native rock band Walan Amana are slated to play music in the Nisenan language from the Sierra Nevada, Vincent Medina will perform in Ohlone, a Bay Area Indian language, and Carolyn Melenani Kuali`i and other Hawaiian artists will sing and dance Hawaiian meles, or chants. Other linguistic surprises will be in store as well at the event, which is co-sponsored by Heyday Books, the Center for the Art of Translation, Pacific Islanders in Communications, and KQED.

Like shrinking biodiversity, the problem of endangered languages is shocking, but as the Exploratorium event will show, efforts to keep languages vital are profound and filled with joy. Imagine if the language in which your mother sang lullabies were no longer, or rarely spoken, and then one day people started to sing it again. (English is so dominant that it’s hard to imagine it disappearing, but if the language of “Hush Little Baby” were to go away, I wouldn’t know my own soul.)


Holman’s journey into endangered language began with his hip-hop-oriented students who claimed that their writing was original, that they “just made shit up.” Holman explained that hip-hop could be better seen as a current iteration of the African-American oral tradition. To understand the lineage better, he journeyed to Africa where he encountered the griots, the poet-musicians and keepers of the West African oral tradition, and also learned about many languages that were endangered. “I owe it all to hip-hop,” Holman said.

In Language Matters, Holman and Grubin travel to Australia, Wales and Hawaii to tell three in-depth stories about language’s threat, preservation and survival. In the Australian outback, we meet Charlie Mangulda, an aboriginal “song man,” or poet, who is the very last speaker of Amurdak, as well as a remote island community of 400 in which 10 different languages are spoken, all in danger of fading out of existence. Then it’s on to Wales, where the feisty Welsh have managed to protect the kernel of their language in spite of centuries of English domination, and where the schools are now bilingual and the country hosts a hugely popular annual poetry competition in Welsh—essentially, their World Series. Finally, in Hawaii, we learn how one Hawaiian-only elementary school founded in the ’80s has helped incubate a resurgence of Hawaiian language and culture that had been in danger of disappearing since the United States toppled Queen Liliuokalani in 1898.

On Maui, Holman talks with the great 87-year-old poet/translator/Buddhist monk W.S. Merwin, who reflects on what is lost when languages disappear. “Where will meanings be,” Merwin asks, “when the words are forgotten?”

Holman’s journey contains a lot of music, because music, song and dance are the memory banks for language. Although Charlie Mangulda is the last Amurdak speaker, bits of the language have migrated into other “song men’s” songs. In Hawaii, language was preserved in the chants that accompany every hula.

Bob Holman performing in The Stomp at the 2012 Eisteddfod in Wales. Photo by David Grubin.
Bob Holman performing in The Stomp at the 2012 Eisteddfod in Wales. (Photo: David Grubin)

In the film, Holman is an infectious participant journalist, sharing his poet’s heart with the people he meets. In Cardiff, he even writes a poem in Welsh and competes in the local poetry slam. (Spoiler alert: He doesn’t win.) But as Gwyneth Lewis, the former national poet of Wales, says in the film, “Language should be a meeting place.” That point is certainly felt in the film.

Globalization made it possible for Holman and Grubin to buzz around the world and make Language Matters. But the same wired world of global travel and instant communication that many of us enjoy has also led to cultural homogenization and a battle of “just trying to preserve our own identities,” Holman tells me.

“Thinking that language is solely a means of communication, having big languages gobble up smaller ones—we are losing what it means to be human,” says Holman. “No Pringleazation! Humans aren’t all the same shaped potato chip! We refuse to fit in a tube!”

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