As the UK tour of The Polar Tombola draws to a close, Nancy Campbell reports on this exciting project which aims to encourage awareness of endangered Arctic languages.
'This is the first time I've looked in a dictionary since my A-levels,' confided a middle-aged man, eagerly flicking through the yellowing pages of an 100-year-old Greenlandic-English dictionary. The dictionary was at London's Southbank Centre, part of participatory live literature project The Polar Tombola.
When we hear about change in the Arctic, it's more often related to climate than culture. But globalisation is causing rapid changes in the region - since the 1800s, 21 indigenous Arctic languages have become extinct, and more are being added to the list year by year. West Greenlandic is one of those vulnerable languages, according to UNESCO's Atlas of World Languages in Danger.
As an environmentalist I began to wonder how future scientists will study the Arctic ecosystem without access to the knowledge of generations enshrined in the region's languages. As a poet, I wonder what happens to an individual's experience of words when their language begins to disappear.
Hence The Polar Tombola - a game of chance, like the Italian Christmas raffle from which it draws it name. Players are encouraged to pick out a Greenlandic word and learn its meaning, then leave behind a word of their own. 'If you had to lose a word from your own language,' I ask, 'what would it be?' The question brings home a sense of what language loss is, one word at a time.
But it's a big commitment to vow never to use a word again and some people decide not to play along. One issue has come up again and again in conversations with players: censorship. 'I'm not giving away a word,' some people say. 'I don't have enough as it is.' Others are only too glad to give up words that have negative connotations - whether these are commonly understood (in the case of 'war' and 'hate') or distinctly personal ('compass'). Both reactions make it clear that the surrender of a word is a potent act. There is no going back: each renunciation is a binding contract, as the player's signature on the card attests.
At the end of each performance I carefully gather up all the cards on which words have been written: The Polar Tombola now has Danish, Dutch, Farsi, Icelandic, Korean and Spanish words, as well as many English ones. There are political epithets, meaningless verbal ticks and Latin scientific names. All these words will be safely stored away in the archive, and a selection have been published in the new anthology The Polar Tombola: A Book of Banished Words alongside new texts on language loss commissioned from poets including Vahni Capildeo, Will Eaves and Richard Price.
The Polar Tombola will be at Arnolfini, Bristol, UK on 2 April 2017. Further information, and to order The Polar Tombola: A Book of Banished Words: http://nancycampbell.co.uk/work/artists-books/polartombola/