SPOKEN HERE by Mark Abley


Travels Among Threatened Languages
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Canadian journalist Abley tracks with painstaking, intrepid care languages tottering on the edge of extinction, from Australia to Native America.

The aggressive incursion of English as the universal language of business, education, and entertainment has silenced many other tongues that formerly thrived in tight, regional pockets around the world. Here, the author valiantly sets out to unearth the existence of the most notable of these and record their decline or, in a few spectacular instances, their dogged resurrection. Of the 417 languages listed as “nearly extinct,” 138 are in Australia, and Abley begins his journey on the remote northern coast of this continent with the dwindling ancient tongue of Mati Ke, spoken by a handful of Aboriginal elders. The author repeatedly ponders two key questions: If all languages are created equal, each reflecting a distinct organization of one’s world, then do some simply deserve to die out? Why should we care about their loss? In northeastern Oklahoma, home to descendants of the powerful Creek Nation who speak Yuchi, Abley records the locals’ last-ditch attempts to keep alive their ancestral tongue in the face of their children’s apathy. Most dear to the author’s Welsh-descended heart is his chronicle of the grassroots revival of six Celtic languages, specifically Manx and Welsh, whose speakers displayed a bloody-minded tribalism despite the English decree that their languages were “doomed.” While militant practice of one’s native language might seem the only way to save it, Abley also offers the example of Provençal, the medieval troubadours’ tongue, which was revived by Frédéric Mistral in the 19th century, but lately has become mired in a contested civil debate about its spelling that just might sink it for good. Finally, Abley examines Yiddish as one language that has successfully transformed itself, thanks to vicissitudes of history, from a shameful, servile dialect to a modern holy tongue.

A humanistic approach to linguistics and a scintillating read. (source notes)

Pub Date: Aug. 6th, 2003
ISBN: 0-618-23649-X
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1st, 2003