Have you ever wondered how you would react if *your* language was threatened with extinction? Would you miss it at all? What more would you lose than words and phrases? Mark Abley tracked the world for 10 years to pursue these and related questions. His discoveries make for an intriguing read spiked with some learning about local tongues like Boro, Yuchi, Provençal or Manx.
Language is used to express the worldview of its speakers, bur does it also shape and influence it? Are the connotations that a word's meaning carries consciously passed on? Many traditional languages have in common that they are more complicated in their grammar than modern ones. Some prescribe human kinships in great detail and maintain a different vocabulary for each gender to use. Does these aspects have a bearing on the human interrelationships? The author pursues the answers from the elders, language teachers and linguistic experts. Of particular interest to him are languages that structure sentences around verbs rather than nouns, as we are used to. Placing the "action" in the centre of a phrase results in a different perspective on life, he argues, making it more inclusive of the surroundings and reducing the primary role of the self. The Boro language, spoken in northern India, has one-verb expressions that require full sentences when translated into English: "gagrom", for example, means "to search for a thing below the water by trampling" or "mokhrob" - to express anger by a sidelong glance. Mohawk must be one of the most complex languages in its use of verbs. In addition to describing the action "a verb must indicate the agent, recipient and the time of the action". There are other elements to consider too, such as the relationships to be expressed or whether it is one-time or habitual; all these components are represented in a series of pre- and suffixes.
Another aspect of the diversity of language that captivates the author, is the naming of objects, like the three or more distinct names for "blue-tongue lizard" in Wangkajunga, an Australian Aborigine language. Nobody seems to knows how they differ from each other. Abley discusses with a Mohawk elder the meaning of the central concepts of Iroquois law: peace, power and righteousness. All three have complex connotations that for non-speakers require detailed explanations. The last concept, for example, can also mean "beautiful" or "good" as well as "righteousness". This is but one example that underscores a unique worldview of its speakers that is influenced by language. In turn, the speakers' perspective continues to influence the evolving language. Some languages are flexible and adjust, developing terms reflecting modern life. Still, others are helpless in this regard and are overrun by the majority language or the universal language, English, the "Walmart" of communication.
While Abley discusses certain linguistic aspects of the selected languages in some detail, Spoken Here is primarily a human interest story and quite removed from dry technical linguistics. The author describes his travels to interesting places, his meetings with scientists and researchers. He commends their work on recording a local threatened language and marvels with them at the grammatical intricacies of another. His primary interest are the individuals who attempt to save or rekindle their (grand)parents' tongues. He describes their surroundings, their community and profiles them with their aspirations and dreams. Through him, we meet elders who recall a time when their language was alive and well. Most activists feel that their language is a vital part of their identity that is worth saving. Others, often the younger people, feel motivated to pick theirs up, almost like a new hobby.
Will the threatened languages survive? Some will, he argues, and gives Manx, Welsh and Mohawk as examples. Political reasons, the ambition to restore some autonomy from a strong neighbour, play an important part in the efforts to rekindle a local language. He compares language diversity with biological diversity of plants and animals. Both are in danger of being eroded or destroyed. The world will be a poorer place without them.
Abley's account of his encounters make an enjoyable read. His selection of places he visited and languages to explore was to a degree arbitrary and sometimes coincidental, such as the discovery of Boro. He pursued leads from people and from respective studies that intrigued him. At times the reader might lose interest in a particularly detailed description of political events surrounding an endangered language issue. Africa, a continent extremely rich in traditional and threatened local languages, was unfortunately not on his travel routes. Experiences there might well have enriched the author's perspectives and deepened the readers' exposure to the challenges and opportunities of Africa's extraordinary diversity. For anybody interested in finding out more about the diverse world of language, this is a good start. [Friederike Knabe]