The last word
Spoken Here: travels among threatened languages
Mark Abley Heinemann, 322pp, £14.99
Do we care that over the next century more than half the world's 6,500 languages face extinction? What use is - say - Manx? Spoken by a mere handful of dogged Manxmen and women, struggling with their obscure Manx choirs and Manx-medium playgroups, why don't we accept that Manx is moribund, an anachronism in today's globalised monoglot world? Why don't we quietly bury it, as we once buried Pictish and Brittonic?
Mark Abley's hunch is that we are at a critical moment in history when we are turning away from linguistic diversity towards more alluring world languages such as English, Chinese or Spanish. He believes that this will lead to a loss at least as impoverishing to humanity as the loss of the endangered flora and fauna that we hear so much more about. Why is it happening, and why does it matter? These questions are being asked suddenly, at the 11th hour, by the tiny minority of people who have woken up to this imminent linguistic cataclysm. It is interesting to note that all but one of Abley's sources have been published since 2000, while his most useful research tool is the internet.
Looking for answers, Abley travels from northern Australia to North America, Wales, Provence, and the Isle of Man. The result is a cri de coeur, passionately and convincingly argued.
He notes the detrimental effects on languages of patterns of migration, loss of prestige, economic pressures, mass media, disease and infighting. Far from accepting that any language is outmoded or deserves to die, he believes that no language is superior to any other. Murrinh-Patha, an Australian language disparaged by a local (white) teacher as the "primitive yabbering" of grizzled bush-dwellers, has a highly sophisticated grammatical structure that expresses the needs and desires of its speakers. There may be only a smattering of them, but that does not mean we should allow their tongue to die.
Abley relishes the complex syntax and peculiar textures of the languages he encounters. Of Boro, spoken in the north-east corner of the Indian subcontinent, he writes: "How can anyone resist a language whose expression for 'slightly humpbacked' is gobdobdob?" How indeed? Yet it is not merely the languages themselves that are important. These languages are pegs on which hang peoples' culture, history, literature, self-esteem and future - their very identity. The late American linguist Ken Hale, expert on Australian languages, likened the intellectual loss for a dead language's speakers to "dropping a bomb on the Louvre".
A writer rather than a professional linguist, Abley provides just enough linguistic analysis to interest us in the structures of the languages themselves, their grammatical foibles and mouth-distorting consonants, yet avoids resorting to the dry flow charts and jargon so beloved of experts. It is crucial for anyone writing about language that they should use their own language well, and Abley writes fluently and freshly.
What he does not provide is enough about himself. His reticence is admirably modest, and allows the languages to take centre stage, but to sustain our interest in his journey we need to know more about how he feels when he arrives and leaves, and what he sees. He is equally sparing in his descriptions of others. Academics and speakers of lesser-used languages come and go, but we rarely get to know them. We often don't even visit places he describes. He teases us with an enticing description of Boro, which is spoken along the northern banks of the Brahmaputra river and has separate words for "to love from the heart", "to pretend to love" and "to love for the last time", yet we never meet a Boro speaker, and Abley never leaves his library in Montreal. He devotes another chapter to the Faroe Islands, to Israel, and to an intriguing place in Brazil where people speak a language called Hixkaryana, yet we only visit through cyber space. He is at his best in outback Australia, where his descriptions are vivid and often funny, but when he goes to Baffin Island he is so detached that you feel he might just as well not have bothered.
It is a pity that the publishers of a book bemoaning the demise of lesser-used languages and dialects haven't removed the litter of offending Americanisms such as "favor", "neighbor" and "gray", which leap from the page like typos.
That said, any book which awakens our indifference to the crisis is to be welcomed, particularly one so well-written and lively. Spoken Here should help to extricate this subject from the academic circles to which it has mostly been confined, and get it out into the wider world.
Helena Drysdale's latest book is Mother Tongues: travels through tribal Europe (Picador)