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Vanishing Voices: The Extinction of the World's Languages [Paperback]

Daniel Nettle , Suzanne Romaine
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
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Book Description

1 Mar 2002
A dramatic account of the rate of language extinction, and how it endangers the future of biodiversity

Few people know that nearly 100 native languages once spoken in what is now California are near extinction, or that most of Australia's 250 aboriginal languages have vanished. In fact, at least half of the world's languages may die out in the next century. What has happened to these voices? Should we be alarmed about the disappearance of linguistic diversity?
The authors of Vanishing Voices assert that this trend is far more than simply disturbing. Making explicit the link between language survival and environmental issues, they argue that the extinction of languages is part of the larger picture of near-total collapse of the worldwide ecosystem. Indeed, the authors contend that the struggle to preserve precious environmental resources-such as the rainforest-cannot be separated from the struggle to maintain diverse cultures, and that the causes of language death, like that of ecological destruction, lie at the intersection of ecology and politics.

And while Nettle and Romaine defend the world's endangered languages, they also pay homage to the last speakers of dying tongues, such as Red Thundercloud, a Native American in South Carolina, Ned Mandrell, with whom the Manx language passed away in 1974, and Arthur Bennett, an Australian, the last person to know more than a few words of Mbabaram.

In our languages lies the accumulated knowledge of humanity. Indeed, each language is a unique window on experience. Vanishing Voices is a call to preserve this resource, before it is too late.

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Vanishing Voices: The Extinction of the World's Languages + Language Death (Canto) + When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World's Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge
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Product details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; New Ed edition (1 Mar 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195152468
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195152463
  • Product Dimensions: 1.8 x 15.6 x 23 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 506,159 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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"[A] superb study of endangered languages.... The tapestry of supporting detail is every bit as compelling as the central thesis— from an examination of how indigenous languages function as museums of local culture to a history of the way in which dominant languages like English,Mandarin, and Spanish have vanquished more vulnerable tongues." (The New Yorker)

"Language extinction is a great tragedy for human culture and for scholarship on all things human. This fascinating book is the latest word on this important issue, containing a wealth of knowledge and wisdom. If we have the good sense to rescue the priceless legacy of linguistic diversity before it vanishes forever, Vanishing Voices will surely deserve a good part of the credit." (Steven Pinker, author of The Language Instinct and Words and Rules)

". . . this clear, cogent and immensely knowledgeable book. . . . Vanishing Voices is a book that needs to be chain-read, therefore: read it, then tell someone else to." (Prof David Crystal, THES)

"Vanishing Voices is an urgent call to arms about the impending loss of one of our great resources. Nettle and Romaine paint a breathtaking landscape that shows why so many of the world's languages are disappearing and more importantly, why it matters. They put the problem of linguistic diversity into the wider context of global biodiversity, and propose the revolutionary idea that saving endangered languages is not about dictionaries and educational programs, but about preserving the cultures and habitats of the people who speak them. Along the way it's also a fascinating introduction to how language works: how languages are born, how they die, and how we can prevent their death." (Deborah Tannen, Georgetown University)

a "splendid and disturbing book." (The Irish Times (Dublin))

About the Author

Daniel Nettle is the author The Fyem Language of Northern Nigeria and Linguistic Diversity (OUP).

Suzanne Romaine is Merton Professor of English Language at the University of Oxford and is the author of Language in Society: An Introduction to Sociolinguistics (OUP)

Inside This Book (Learn More)
First Sentence
A few years ago, linguists raced to the Turkish farm village of Haci Osman to record Tevfic Esenc, a frail old man believed to be the last known speaker of the Ubykh language once spoken in he northwestern Caucasus. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
What would you feel if you were the last fluent speaker of a language, say, English? We hardly pay attention to such a question; sadly, neither do most of the speakers until their languages become endangered. Anyway, history tells us that never take it for granted that the major global languages such as English will be still spoken in AD3000. If you don't believe me, take a look at this book. This book tries to explain the underlying factors that account for the insidious extinction of the world's languages. It also offers a few concrete suggestions to save the endangered languages. I almost read this book from cover to cover, and really enjoyed it.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Kind of book anyone with conservation a concern should read - including animal conservationists and ecologists. Minority languages and their impending doom is discussed here.

Very readable and based on sound research this book gives you the ingnored and somtimes encouraged tradedgy of language extinction. The human story behind the loss of language is told impartially here, yet its saddness is very apparent.

What should be done to arrest the decline in language diverstity is also dicussed and the economic and ecological advantages to linguistic diverence is clearly shown.

Anyone interested in people, language, the economy and ecology will find this a facintating read. Thoroughly recomended.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Magnificent 10 May 2003
By A Customer
A truly fascinating and impassioned overview of the state of the world's languages today, which does not shrink from addressing all the issues involved. This book analyses the reasons why languages are disappearing, why it matters and what we can do about it. Upon finishing this book I felt moved and inspired by the obvious commitment and passion of the authors on this topical global issue.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.7 out of 5 stars  13 reviews
50 of 62 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Useful facts & whiffs of Whorfianism 6 Feb 2001
By Scott Spires - Published on
The initial thesis of this book is that a small number of "killer languages," most of them Indo-European (English, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, French), are in effect causing the deaths of hundreds of indigenous and minority languages around the world. Few would dispute this claim. Nettle & Romaine do an excellent job of documenting this process, with plenty of evidence both historical and linguistic. I learned a lot of new things here.
More dubious is their attempt to link linguistic diversity to bio-diversity and cultural knowledge. For instance, they mention African techniques of metallurgy and the Balinese irrigation calendar as examples of local cultural knowledge worth preserving. However, they fail to demonstrate how these things are dependent on maintaining an indigenous language. After all, a body of knowledge can be translated from any one language into any other--were it not so, Americans would be the only people who could use the telephone, Chinese the only people who could practice kung fu, and Italians the only people who could make pasta. In short, there's a certain amount of Whorfianism here (briefly, the belief that one's language structures one's thought processes), an idea I find difficult to defend.
I believe their case could have been stronger, had it focused more on the spheres of life that are particularly dependent on language, such as literature & art; religious & cultural rituals; and the sense of community that comes with a shared language. I am fully in sympathy with attempts to keep languages from dying out, but found N & R's analysis to be wide of the mark.
20 of 24 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Important but repetetive message 26 Sep 2001
By Joseph Fusco - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
There is little for me to add to the other fine reader reviews of this work except to say that I found it very repetitive. I am not sure that it could not have been a long article in the Atlantic or Harper's.
I am not at all sure that there is much that can be done to preserve some of these minor languages in the long run but I do find it admirable that the authors have taken up the cudgel.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Thought-provoking and well worth reading, but has a number of weak points 26 Oct 2007
By Christopher Culver - Published on
Anthopologist Daniel Nettle and linguist Suzanne Romaine are prominent scholars on language "ecologies", and in VANISHING VOICES: The Extinction of the World's Languages they have written a introduction for laypeople on the phenomenon of major language death in the modern world, and why we should be concerned.

The history of these developments is the story of the rise of agriculture--the first major change when small populations in equilibrium shifted to dominant and weaker societies--and then the Industrial Revolution where European languages spread all over the world. Numerous case studies are used, such as the decline of the Celtic languages in the British Isles and France, Papua New Guinea youngsters shifting from tribal languages to standard languages, and Hawaiian going from sole language of a million people to a forgotten ancestral language among a now reduced indigenous population.

The authors also fascinatingly show that language death tends to be only one part of poor development strategies with detrimental effects to ecology and human rights as well as local speech. There are ways to stimulate economic development while still preserving the local language, and Nettle and Romaine give several examples of where this is happening, such as Bali, Hawaii, and Israel (where Hebrew, against all odds, has been revived).

When it comes to why we should care about the loss of indigenous languages, one major and perfectly valid reason that Nettle and Romaine give is that certain structures only exist in a few languages on Earth. Had Hixkaryana in the Amazon, for example, died out, we would have never known that human languages can have Object-Subject-Verb order. However, other reviewers have already warned that the book approaches the fallacy of Sapir-Whorfism, by which a given worldview is possible only through some languages and not others.

The book has numerous other problems, most of which are small but which add up to the point that the book sorely needs a second edition with revisions. For one, there are minor factual errors like a map showing the Altaic language family spreading from Mesopotamia into the southern Russian steppes. The Altaic grouping in general extremely controversial, and the spread of these languages--the Turkic migrations--were from the Far East into Central Asia, the very opposite direction.

There is also the troubling condemnation of missionary activities. The authors suggest that missionaries of a faith abroad can only do harm to the local language, ignoring completely such prominent figures as St Stephen of Perm (Komi), St Herman of Alaska (Inuit), and Sts Cyril and Methodius (Slavonic) who in fact protected local languages and helped their development into literary use. The authors overall give the impression that local traditions are always good and worth preserving. I disagree, as linguists we can make only the case that all languages are equal, but there's very little support for moral relativism among philosophers anymore.

Finally, while Oxford University Press has a high standard of typographical and print quality, this book is shoddily made. Poor-quality paper, an impression that seems like photocopying instead of printing, and peculiar formatting. I thought it was just my copy, but all other copies of the book that I have come across are the same.

VANISHING VOICES is worth reading for those concerned by language loss, but few books have left me with such mixed feelings.
7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Important and interesting topic, but presented as a diatribe 28 Aug 2006
By K G R - Published on
This book presents an important, pressing concern for all humanity, namely the rapid loss of most of the world's languages. The authors rightly present this problem as one in urgent need of attention and help. However, the authors make their case in a rambling diatribe, with very overt political commentary. They proceed to comment on agricultural processes (they never mention that the agricultural revolution saved millions from starvation), capitalism, globalization, make subtle anti-Western jibes, etc. They praise French-language measures adopted in Quebec, but fail to discuss the numerous critiques of, nor the alleged socioeconomic losses to Quebec that resulted. They praise and cite as examples for future action everywhere language-immersion programs in places like Ireland, New Zealand, and Hawaii, yet none of these situations is remotely close to the situation of most endangered languages in the world in terms of population size, resources, state support, etc. If the authors had focused on the subject at hand and avoided politics, this book could have been so much better.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars important subject, worthy book 8 Aug 2007
By Hank Horse aka MB - Published on
This is an outstanding book. Nettle & Romaine have produced a serious, well-reasoned analysis of linguistic depletion. They ground their analysis with historical surveys covering the origins of human language as well as the effect on languages of colonialism all over the world.

I haven't written an amazon review before, but I think some of the previous reviewers do this book a disservice. N&R give many examples of how certain types of economic development have disrupted traditional cultures and languages. To ask that they "avoid politics" as one reviewer does is silly. These are concrete power relations they are describing. Really, their political engagement is commendable. I didn't expect it from such a scholarly book.

N&R present a thoughtful analysis of the impediments to the goals of "rural development, sustainability, and cultural/linguistic pluralism." I was particularly impressed by their description of the superiority of traditional Balinese rice-growing methods to those forced in place by the Asian Development Bank. (The ADB concluded "the cost of the lack of appreciation of the merits of the traditional system has been high..." p170) N&R point to models of economic development that utilize traditional knowledge rather than disregarding it, as neoliberal top-down schemes do.

If you are at all interested in sustainable development, the problems of globalization, or preservation of traditional cultures, the authors bring a linguistic perspective to the intersection of all three that is invaluable.

Also, I was intrigued by their linkage of linguistic diversity to biological diversity. It is striking how closely they correlate geographically. If there's one thing I would have liked in the book, it would have been a brief account of the generation of new languages. But I guess that's why we have poets.

This book is well-written, and presents arguments both broad in scope and subtle in detail. I highly recommend it.
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