The August Challenges: #4 – The Roots of Language

The August challenges are back! Every week  in the month of August, we’ll be introducing a brand new challenge from a young poet to help jump-start your writing over the summer. In this fourth and final challenge, commended Foyle Young Poet Mikaela Carmichael asks you to explore the stories and characters of different languages.


The theme for this challenge is the roots of language. Having been raised speaking Spanish, Gaelic and English this is a subject which has captivated me, and, which more often than not, influences my poetry. I love exploring the history of different cultures, learning about their interactions and the role that language plays in these. Looking at the history of a language and following its roots also allows us to understand its everyday vocabulary and expressions better – there is often a meaning which has been lost and which we no longer appreciate in the 21st century, as well as a wealth of imagery that, as poets, can definitely appreciate.

The Challenge

Your challenge is to write a poem, which explores the origins of a particular language. You might want to choose a language which you already speak, or which you have studied, as it helps if you have an understanding of culture and history of that language. Don’t worry if you don’t speak another language – writing about English can be just as interesting! Alternatively, you could choose a language you don’t speak, but which interests you, and explore it a little through the process of writing your poem. Really, I want you to choose whichever language you feel either most interested or most comfortable in!

You could follow your chosen language as it travelled from place to place. If your chosen language is French, for example, you could write about how the French language travelled to other countries, such as Albania, Canada and Madagascar. To make this easier, you could experiment with personifying the language as a person, travelling the world and carrying with them this complex gift.

In his poem ‘I Love the Sun-Baked Taste of Armenian Words’ (translated by Diana Der Hovanessian), Egishé Charents considers the physical influences on his native language of Armenian and how it fits in the landscape it originated from:

I love the arch of skies, the faceted waters
running through its syllables; the mountain
weather, the meanest hut that bred this tongue.
I love the thousand-year-old city stones.

Armenian mountains
Image: Norayr Chilingarian

With your chosen language, think about where it originated from, and what makes it unique (the way it sounds, the people who speak it, the meanings it has) and write down all of the things that cross your mind. Once you have a bit of a grip on this, try to personify the language. Finally, write about this character’s journey from where they came from to where they have now reached.

Here are some prompts to get you started:

What does the language sound like? Is it harsh? Gentle? A harsh sound for example could come across through the use of lots of t’s and c’s, whereas s’s and f’s might produce a more soothing sound.

What do you immediately think of when you hear the language? What’s the culture like? Spanish culture in my experience is very loud and feisty, so if I was to write about Spanish my character would be boisterous. Gaidhlig, on the other hand, sounds to me a lot rougher. How could this be expressed as a character? If I were to write about Gaidhlig as a person, I think they’d be independent and hard to win over. This is also influenced by a resilience in living, often, in remote, wild places.

If you are fluent or confident in your chosen language, you might want to consider using words or phrases in your chosen language within your poem. This is something I do quite often, as I find that in many cases the same word in a different language can have a slightly different meaning, which might fit better. I recently struggled with the word ‘fiesta’ in Spanish, which literally translates as ‘party’ yet which captures a much more community oriented spirit and less formal gathering or celebration. Party seemed too exclusive. In the end I decided just to use the Spanish word. All of these connotations help us to distinguish the original meaning of a word and how it might have been used in its language.

In Khaled Mattawa’s poem ‘Echo & Elixir 5’, he explores the difficulty he finds in expressing a particular concept in English;

Rouhi. Gharami. Ishqi. Ahla ayami.
Maybe to say “I love you”
in another language
is not to love you at all.

Hear me say it, Habibti.
I say: N’hibik.

He reverts to Arabic words in order to convey a sense of adoration and love that he doesn’t think he can capture in another language.

Your poem doesn’t have to be so complex – but interchanging just a few words can really shift the meaning of the poem.

Image: Alexa Clark

A top tip when you start out is just to brainstorm all your ideas and thoughts. Get keywords and images down quickly and you can refine them later. Don’t restrain yourself – let all your ideas flow.

If you feel like you’re stuck in a rut, leave your writing, distract yourself, and come back to it later. This can help you to clear your mind and allows you to come at the poem from a fresh perspective.

My final piece of advice is this- ask for feedback! I cannot emphasise this enough. Ask friends and family what they think and mull this over – but remember not to take it too much to heart. I think it’s really important to understand how other people interpret your writing, even if it’s not what you meant at the time.

Good luck and happy writing! I’m looking forward to reading all of your entries.

This challenge is now closed – huge thanks to all who entered.

Mikaela Carmichael was a commended Foyle Young Poet of the Year in  2015. She is currently one of ten young people working on Scotland’s national What’s Your Story? project.

Published August, 2016

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