When a Language Dies
As the year draws to a close, we’ve been reflecting on all the wonderful books published in 2010, and in doing so, we’ve also realized there are some classics worth revisiting. The authors and friends of Oxford University Press are proud to present this series of essays, which will appear regularly until the New Year, drawing our attention to books both new and old. Below, David Crystal, author of Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language, recommends two books about languages in danger of dying out.
There’s a language dying out somewhere in the world every two weeks or so. It’s a far greater crisis, proportionately speaking, than the threat of extinction facing plants and animals. Half the world’s languages are so seriously endangered that they are likely to disappear this century. That’s 3000 languages, maybe.
In 2010 we’ve seen several attempts to get the language crisis placed higher on the public agenda. Two plays on the subject have been produced – one in the USA (Julia Cho’s Language Archive) and one in Australia (Kamarra Bell Wykes’ Mother’s Tongue). And there have been two excellent books.
In November, US woodcarver Tim Brookes produced Endangered Alphabets to accompany an exhibition of his work – a fascinating combination of linguistics, aesthetics, biography, and travelogue, as he tells the story of how he tracked down his alphabets (not as easy as you might think) and the problems he encountered in carving them. And the month before saw the publication of K David Harrison’s The Last Speakers: The Quest to Save the World’s Most Endangered Languages, published by the National Geographic Society.
Harrison’s book is indeed a quest. He travelled the world to meet last speakers, and he tells their story in a style that is part scholar, part journalist. His journey took in remote parts of Bolivia, Australia, Siberia, Japan, and India, as well as urban areas in the USA, Japan, and Europe. (Language death can happen anywhere – not just in isolated communities.) He gets the speakers to tell their stories, and their personal accounts convey, in a way that no other narrators can, exactly what is lost when a language dies – a vision of the world, a unique heritage, a contribution to human knowledge, a role in maintaining the planet’s cultural diversity.
The task is to document and, where possible, revitalize endangered languages. Several of the speakers are actively involved in language revitalization programmes – many using the internet to pass on their knowledge to new generations. Each project is a dramatic and moving story. And it becomes clear, as the stories are told, how it is possible for those who speak unendangered languages to help those who are in a less fortunate position. We can all play a part in the story, by influencing politicians – at all levels, local, national, international – to take positive steps to put in place language maintenance policies, by persuading philanthropists to fund local projects, and by simply helping to develop a positive attitudes towards language diversity in our own communities.
It’s a common reaction, born of ignorance, to say ‘So what?’, when one hears about a language dying out. It becomes a little more difficult to say that after reading this book.
David Crystal is Honorary Professor of Linguistics at the University of Wales, Bangor. His bestselling books includes The Stories of English, Txtng: The Gr8 Db8, and his autobiography Just a Phrase I’m Going Through: My Life in Language. His most recent book is Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language.