Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages by Mark Abley23 October 2007
I was quite surprised to see the response to my last language-related post. I doubt I’ll get the same reaction for this one, but it’s as interesting a book as the other one was.
Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages by Mark Abley
Most books that deal with threatened or extinct languages set out from the start to demonise English. I’ve seen the words ‘parasitical’, ‘pernicious’, and ‘malignant’ used to describe the effect of the English language on other languages in the world. Mark Albey’s book does point to the spread and popularity of English as a significant factor in the decline of many languages, but instead of simply lamenting the loss of some of the world’s more complex tongues, he takes the time to go to places in the world where languages that were threatened with dying out have made a comeback, or are trying to make a comeback. And more importantly, he attempts to analyse the success stories, and see if there are ways that techniques used by revitalised language-speakers can be harnessed to save languages that have not been so fortunate in the past few decades.
In Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages, Abley travels to remote villages in Australia and the American Southwest, to the Isle of Man and to the south of France and to the Caucasus mountains in search of languages that are struggling against extinction. As well as indigenous languages, he also explores the languages of immigrant communities, most notably when he interviews a group of Yiddish speakers in his native Canada. And arguably the best parts of the book are the parts where he speaks about the languages themselves, describing patterns of speech and turns of phrase that would sound unutterably alien to a native English speaker but which are extremely revealing about a language’s history and its ties to the culture in which the language developed.
All in all, Abley argues, it is the linguistic ties to culture that makes the preservation of languages so important. The subject-verb-object structure of English says quite a bit about the importance of the self/subject to an English speaker, but what can be inferred about culture from a language where the subject appears in the middle of the verb, or where verbs can exist without separate subjects, or where the concept of both subject and verb don’t really exist in that language? Spoken Here is a travel book and a linguistics book combined, and the combination works well enough to make it worth looking at.