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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Exploring endangered tongues
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...
Published on 19 July 2005 by Friederike Knabe

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10 of 14 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars An inaccurate tear jerker
At first when I started reading this book I found it a very moving account of the plight of endangered languages. It pulls at the very deepest heart strings as it passionately describes the last two speakers of a language who are forbidden to speak it by tribal taboos. It movingly describes the efforts of Manx people as they struggle valiantly in the attempt to keep their...
Published on 28 Jun 2005 by N. Jones


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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Exploring endangered tongues, 19 July 2005
By 
Friederike Knabe "Books are funny little port... (Ottawa, Ontario Canada) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
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]
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An unusual travelogue, 20 Oct 2003
By 
S. Yogendra "Shefaly" (UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Spoken Here: Travels among Threatened Languages (Hardcover)
Travelogues have long been a key source of vicarious pleasure for me but this one was unusual because it tickled the lover-of-languages in me too. A collection of discrete stories, joined only by the struggles (and joys!) of the last few speakers of dying languages from around the world, the book makes an intriguing reading. Sometimes it will fill you with sorrow, as when reading about the last speakers of Yuchi, a native Indian language and at moments. At other times, it will make you laugh out aloud, as when learning that the Boro languages from NE India has a verb for 'falling in the well unknowingly'... All in all, a joyous and contemplative ride. Highly recommended.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Poignant; an 'un-putdownable' tear-jerker., 5 Feb 2005
By A Customer
Riveting. I've stayed up until the wee hours reading this, not wanting morning to come. A collection of true but sad stories of linguistic metamorphases and the of extinction native tongues around the globe. It is like watching the human race vanish in slow motion.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The English Virus, 23 Dec 2003
By 
A. Ross (Washington, DC) - See all my reviews
(TOP 500 REVIEWER)    (REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Spoken Here: Travels among Threatened Languages (Hardcover)
The viral-like spread of English as the lingua franca of the modern world has had many disturbing effects, not the least of which is its corrosive effect on hundreds of languages spoken by comparatively small populations. Canadian journalist Abley isn't so interested in detailing how this has happened (it's pretty obvious that the proliferation of satellite television and the Internet over the last decade, coupled with American hegemony is largely to blame), but rather seeks to visit these communities to see what efforts are being made to preserve native tongues. Long chapters on specific regions (Northern Australia, Oklahoma, The Isle of Man, Provence, Quebec, Wales) are separated by briefer interludes on various related themes. This is a fascinating topic, and one I somehow expected to find more interesting than Abley makes it.
It's hard to put a finger on why the book was a bit of a letdown. Abley is scrupulously fair-minded in his reportage, and has clearly done a great deal of research. He's careful not to blindly place language preservationists on a pedestal, and asks some genuinely hard questions. Although here's clearly a champion of these disappearing languages and draws a distinct parallel between biodiversity and linguistic diversity, he doesn't shy from shining the light on the failings or more objectionable sides of preservationists. That said, there are a few shortcomings. One of these is that he never really discusses how this whole issue worked in the past. When the Roman Empire ran amok, did Latin replace indigenous speech? More problematic is his focus on languages developed nations. For example, the spread of Spanish in South America, and English and French in Africa have had profound influences, but ABley sticks to North America, Western Europe, and Australia. Finally, the prose—despite noble efforts to inject humor at times—remains rather dry throughout. Some of the chapters run on and on, and would have benefited from judicious editing.
Still, it's hard to fault a book on such an important topic, and the mix of sociology, travelogue, linguistics, and history is probably the best approach to the topic. Recommended for those with a deep interest in the whole wide world and/or language, others may find it slow going.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Should inspire everyone to learn another language!, 29 Mar 2011
Apparently, US presidential hopeful John McCain was recently accosted by a woman who wanted him to know how furious she was about something. What was the issue? America's foreign policy? Russia's actions in Georgia? Nope; her local store had put the sign `Entrada' above the entrance.

English speakers are famous for their ignorance of other languages, and their occasional paranoia at the mere sign of linguistic difference. Yet English is fast becoming the single dominant world language. And two of the most prominent English-speaking countries (Australia and the USA) between them hold several hundred aboriginal languages in real danger of dying out within a generation or two. Mark Abley makes a compelling case for the importance of linguistic diversity, comparing it to biodiversity, in terms of the multiple ways of thinking that each language contains. This is an fascinating book, not quite as depressing as I have made it sound, in which the author - not a trained linguist by any means - visits various programs to revive threatened languages around the world - from Manx here in the UK, to Boro, Yuchi and Mohawk. I found it quite inspiring, not least because I am a Welsh learner myself. When will I stop calling myself a dysgwr - learner - and call myself a speaker? Perhaps never. Ah well, sdim ots da fi! Monolingualism in the UK, and the opprobrium levelled at Welsh in particular has always stuck in my craw. This I think is a book that should encourage every English speaker to learn another language.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Math dhà riribh - excellent, 21 Nov 2008
Funny, informative, sad, insightful, fascinating...

It's not a dry academic tome - linguistics and language regeneration can be a dry topic but Abley works wonders here.

Languages, especially the ancient ones, are treasure troves of wisdom and culture. They should be protected as plants and animals are. Not only that but passing on bilinugalism to kids gives them an excellent advantage in life.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Simplistic but interesting, 18 Oct 2007
By 
Wyvernfriend (Dublin, Ireland) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)   
I'm not a linguist but I do speak several languages, mostly smatterings of each and I understand the difficulties of translation from one to another and the frustration of not knowing which words best fit the idea you're trying to impart. The feeling that the translation is at best a best fit and at worst a misrepresentation of the words used. One of these languages is Irish Gaelic or Gaeilge, a language fighting for survival.

I didn't really realise that I had it easy, comparatively speaking. At least the construction of English by Irish people is understood, the grammar, while not perfect, does work to an extent.

This book is about several languages in danger and the variety of strenghts, weaknesses, opportunities and threats they're encountering. He looks at some of the ways cultures have fought for their language survival against the "Wall-Mart" of languages that is English. And it's an interesting read.

But it's a simplified read, it skims a surface of fact and makes you wonder about what you can do to improve things within your own language groups but it doesn't go any further than that. It's written by a journalist in a very accessible style and in the manner of a travelogue. It lost some points for the lack of depth but gained some back for being so readable.
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11 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating and sad, 8 Feb 2004
By 
Dr. M. Ford "drmjflys" - See all my reviews
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This book is part travelogue, part linguistic study but predominantly a gripping story that is set across the entire globe. There are many thousands of languages in the world but it seems we will be left with 20 or so in a hundred years time if present trends continue. And its not just obscure languages of the remote regions that are threatened with Abley considering whether Dutch, French and German can survive encroaching Anglicisation. This, however, is not the main thrust of the book; rather he is concerned with threatened languages that are in various states of health. For example Mati Ke which is spoken by two elderly aboriginals in Australia and will soon only exist on cassettes and CD Rom and Yuchi which has a dwindling number of Native American speakers. These are contrasted with languages that are fighting back such as Manx or Faroese and those that have resisted destruction like Welsh.
Abley describes himself as a poet and a journalist and the former comes shining through in the accessible and lyrical writing style. In each of the long chapters where he focuses and one of the languages he successfully creates an image of the people and places in which the language lives and carefully ties that to the history and future of the language. He is respectful of the people he meets but rightly critical of some of the practices he encounters. Interspersed with the long chapters are shorter ones which give some of the background behind language and its study and act as a smooth segue between the longer chapters. These too are written accessible and never dull you with linguistics or academics.
If you are interested in the way language works and are as hopelessly monolingual as I am you should read this book; it will encourage you to get back into evening school and dust of those ‘teach yourself …’ books and have another go at sustaining language diversity.
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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Trading off tongues, 21 Feb 2005
By 
Stephen A. Haines (Ottawa, Ontario Canada) - See all my reviews
(HALL OF FAME REVIEWER)    (REAL NAME)   
Language is often credited with being the cement binding a culture. A people can adapt legends from outside, even a religion or two. If these aren't expressed in terms common to the local populace, they're likely to be rejected. If accepted, they may undergo some "loss in translation", and the culture adapts and expands its scope. The diversity of human societies show how this process has progressed over the millennia. Now, linguists estimate at least one human language disappears with every new moon. Perhaps 6000 remain in common use in isolated enclaves. Mark Abley flits over the globe to reveal some of the pockets of humanity where "minority" languages persist. With deep feelings of respect for these languages and their associated cultures, he portrays their struggle for survival in the age of "globalisation". People are being asked to trade off their culture and language for profit.
Strung out from its African roots, humanity's spread over the planet has led to wide cultural and linguistic diversity. Abley's opening chapter in a remote Australian community reflects both the diversity and longevity of the human diaspora. Australia is home to the longest continuous cultural identity anywhere. European invaders drove Aboriginal society into isolated pockets - such as the Mate Ke community perched on the Timor Sea. There, the imposition of Roman Catholic missionaries and miners of any [or no] faith, have left only a tiny community of speakers of Murrin-Patha.
The Mate-Ke group becomes the model for much of the remainder of the book as Abley travels in various lands to observe the terminal state of many languages and cultures. He was prompted in this by learning of Native Canadian elderly people struggling to impart their languages to children mentally chained to CBC television programming. The book is not a continuously flowing narrative, but transports you from place to place, each with its resident language and society, in rather abrupt fashion. That jumpy format should give the reader pause to consider what Abley is conveying. It is the "isolated enclave" situation set in an incoming tidal flow of language and social change. The inflowing language is too often English and the change is economic and industrial. Even the last-ditch efforts to protect a language in Provencal France is contending against methods imposed by English-speaking nations - uniformity and conformity. And the impact goes far beyond how one shops for groceries or orders up a beer. The pattern is duplicated in the United States, India and Africa.
This book makes an excellent companion to Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs and Steel". Where Diamond focussed on the material imposition of European-based cultures on the remainder of the world, Abley shows how the invasion and occupation by these forces is demolishing the last vestiges of ancient cultures. It's not a comforting picture. Some resistance is emerging, sometimes in unexpected places. The people of the Faeroes, that mystic group of islands somewhere north of London, are digging in to protect their ancient, if strangely mixed, language. The isolated oceanic rock of bizarre felines, Isle of Man, is making efforts to keep its form of Gaelic something more than a tourist attraction. And the Welsh are no longer apologising for maintaining a television channel in their native tongue. Abley is a journalist, not a linguist, but his sense of feeling for threatened languages and their speakers would not likely be achieved by any ethnographer. This book should be read by anyone wishing to understand the various facets the expansion of industrialised societies is having on people with no power to resist but that of the spoken word.
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10 of 14 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars An inaccurate tear jerker, 28 Jun 2005
By 
N. Jones - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
At first when I started reading this book I found it a very moving account of the plight of endangered languages. It pulls at the very deepest heart strings as it passionately describes the last two speakers of a language who are forbidden to speak it by tribal taboos. It movingly describes the efforts of Manx people as they struggle valiantly in the attempt to keep their language away from the very jaws of extinction.
It moved me because I felt an affinity with these people. I feel this deep emotional bond because I know myself just how these people feel. I know, because I speak one of those lovely, unique and precious languages about which the author writes.

This is the source of my disappointment with the book. One of the final chapters of the book is about my language, Welsh. I found the spell that had captivated me up till then was broken. This chapter is marred by minor but distracting inaccuracies that spoil the story for me. The author gets details wrong that cause me to doubt the veracity of all the other romantic tales. For example, his description of Ty Tawe and the people around it is not one that I recognise. Those pot plants he has someone watering are actually made of plastic! ( He even erroneously calls it "Ty Tawr")

In short, I would describe the book as full of excellent yarns by a talented story teller. However, the yarns are as fragile as the languages they describe and can unravel when you know the truth.
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Spoken Here: Travels among Threatened Languages
Spoken Here: Travels among Threatened Languages by Mark Abley (Hardcover - Aug 2003)
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