Vanishing Voices: The Extinction of the World's Languages Paperback – 16 May 2002
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Review from previous edition "[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 (O.U.P.). 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 (O.U.P.). Vanishing Voices was awarded the 2001 Book of the Year Award from the British Association of Applied Linguistics.
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Top Customer Reviews
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.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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.
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.
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.
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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