Carl Sandburg's poem Languages is a poem about how languages can change over time. On the surface level, it compares the evolution of language to the formation of a river. At the same time, however, it makes a statement on why languages are difficult to label and mark. The lines dividing languages blur very easily.
There are no handles upon a language
Whereby men take hold of it
And mark it with signs for its remembrance.
It is a river, this language,
Once in a thousand years
Breaking a new course
Changing its way to the ocean.
It is mountain effluvia
Moving to valleys
And from nation to nation
Crossing borders and mixing.
Languages die like rivers.
Words wrapped round your tongue today
And broken to shape of thought
Between your teeth and lips speaking
Now and today
Shall be faded hieroglyphics
Ten thousand years from now.
Your song dies and changes
And is not here tomorrow
Any more than the wind
Blowing ten thousand years ago
The first three lines of the poem talk about how man has no firm grip on language. It is clearly not a physical thing to be grasped, and it cannot be marked as such. There is an attachment between men and language, but it is not clear. This may be a statement on the many different languages humans speak. It may not be clear when a language has completely changed into something different, or when it is merely a different dialect. It is hard to tell where the boundaries are, which is why it is described as having no handles for men to take hold of and mark it with signs for its remembrance. These difficulties arise because exactly what makes a language is difficult to determine. Sometimes it can be...
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In its entirety, this poem describes how a language can evolve or die, and how things said in this language can change or die with it. Boundaries between languages may not be clear. Like rivers they can travel close together, or merge completely. All languages, however, act as rivers. They start at a source and travel. They then travel, merge, or fade away. Upon closer examination, the poem also says why languages are difficult to label. The reason is that they change with time. The English language of today is not the same English language spoken hundreds of years ago. As all languages evolve similarly, this applies to all languages. Subtle changes in gestures, writing, or spoken language eventually add up. After a long enough period of time it is as though an entirely new language has formed, but kept the same name as the previous language.
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