25 February 2008

Mark Abley - Spoken Here

This book is subtitled Travels among threatened languages and is part travelogue and part linguistic study. Abley travels around the world - to Australia, America, Canada, Venezuela, the Isle of Man and Wales, to examine several of the hundreds of minority languages that will die out this century, and some that might not.

Abley is a Canadian journalist, and early on he apologises to academics for his lack of linguistic training, and inability to analyse languages. He only speaks English and French, although given the languages he's studying, it would have been little help if he knew ten more - few of them are related to the Indo-European family group with which English-speakers are most familiar. He has the virtues of a journalist over an academic - an empathy for the human stories behind the dry facts, and that means that he can bring out the sociological implications of the loss of these languages.

He starts in Australia, where perhaps one third of the world's endangered languages are. Partly this is because of the sparse and diverse communities of the indigenous aborigines - there are pockets of maybe a few hundred native speakers of some languages. Those that have not been urbanised are generally the old, and they find it hard to encourage their children to speak their ancestral tongue. This is a story heard around the world, it's similar amongst the native Indians of America and Canada that Abley visits.

The consequences of this loss of language are not trivial, according to Abley. A culture is identified by what separates it from other cultures, and few characteristics are more distinguishing than a language. As a language disappears, by oppression, assimilation, or domination by an external language, so does the identity of the culture. To that extent it's a political issue, and has been vociferously used as such even where the culture is thriving, such as Wales.

Abley treats all his subjects with equal dignity, although one is likely to have more sympathy for the desperate situation of Aborigines than the Welsh or Manx featured. Some of the worst abuses against the indigenous population in Australia are within living memory - the forced adoption for white education of aboriginal children, for example - and the gap in economic and social status between aboriginal and white populations is larger than almost anywhere else in the world. This makes the language debate even more complex in this situation. Economic progress for the young generation of aborigines cannot be achieved without English, and there's no incentive for them to maintain their ancestral languages. Furthermore, the elders are often timid to pass on the language to unwilling children, and they children unenthusiastic about learning it.

Abley doesn't try to impose strong themes in the book, they arise out of his travels. Language is a necessary component of political identity, economic success, cultural pride, but also of differentiation. Abley discusses throughout how different languages can express ideas and concepts that are inexpressible in other languages. There's dispute as to how much the use of language defines how the user thinks - if one language has different ways of articulating concepts of time and distance, does that mean that the speaker conceives of time and distance differently, or are this elemental concepts independent of the language used?

I went to an interesting lecture a few weeks after reading this, which was about the concept of numbers in humans. There's a scientific definition of 'numerosity', which is number sense (distinct from 'numeracy' which is an ability to count and manipulate numbers) Someone with basic numerosity can, for example, look at a group of three items and identify them as 'three' without counting them. They can also recognise four as being bigger than three, and match the same numbers of different items. This is independent of the language used, or any language at all. This is shown in cultures which are limited in the words they have for numbers. Many people are aware of tribes in Papua, or the Amazon, which have words for 'one', 'two', and then 'more than two'. Despite these limitations in vocabulary, these tribes can exhibit numerosity, which is fairly crucial as the allocation of resources depends upon it, so they know that if they have eight children they need eight meal servings, even if they don't have a word for 'eight'.

This suggests that some basic concepts are fundamental to human thought and are independent of language, but this surely doesn't apply to more sophisticated concepts, such as our relationship to the environment, or to each other. Abley is very persuasive about this value of minority languages, although it's harder to justify their preservation on that basis rather than the more essential one of tribal identity.

This is a fascinating and well-written book. Abley's early apology was unnecessary - his research is admirably presented, and pertinent throughout, and he has a good grasp of the academic background to his subject, as well as the wider political import.


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