SPOKEN HERE: Travels Among Threatened Languages

Mark Abley, Author
Mark Abley, Author . Houghton Mifflin $24 (322p) ISBN 978-0-618-23649-7
Paperback - 322 pages - 978-0-618-56583-2
Paperback - 336 pages - 978-0-679-31199-7
Hardcover - 322 pages - 978-0-679-31101-0
Paperback - 322 pages - 978-0-09-946022-0
Hardcover - 320 pages - 978-0-434-01153-7
Open Ebook - 336 pages - 978-1-4464-1045-5
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There are roughly 6,000 languages in use in the world today, most of them spoken by a tiny number of people—further proof of humanity's ability to generate intoxicating variety. Sadly, the processes of linguistic imperialism may still be as strong as they have ever been; expansion of the major world languages, particularly English, is, according to Abley, likely to bring about the elimination of most of these languages by century's end. Canadian journalist Abley shrewdly frontloads his book with some of the most exotic languages before moving on to better-known cases (which are also considerably less at risk) such as Provençal, Yiddish and Welsh. Readers who think they "get" how languages work may be startled by the considerable deviation from Western norms: for instance, Murrinh-Patha, spoken in Australia, boasts a bewilderingly complex system of pronouns; Mi'kmaq, from eastern Canada and Maine, and Boro, a northern Indian tongue, all but eschew nouns. To read these accounts of dwindling languages—and their often forlorn, marginalized speakers—is to gain insight into the powerful colonial forces still in play. Abley's informal approach makes this more a travel book than a language book; while describing the people and places in affecting detail, he sometimes stints in depicting the languages. Abley also sometimes conflates the extinction of a language with that of the people who speak it; however, his contention rings true that the disappearance of these languages represents "a loss beyond estimation." This generous, sorrow-tinged book is an informative and eloquent reminder of a richness that may not exist much longer. (Aug.)

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