Mark Abley,
Spoken Here:
Travels Among Threatened Languages

(Random House Canada, 2003)

Today, thousands of languages are facing extinction. In Spoken Here you meet the warriors fighting for languages that you may not have known existed and follow their daily struggles to save something they feel is of value.

You also learn the answers to some good questions: Why bother saving the hundreds of aboriginal and other minority languages that disappear across the globe almost daily? How did universal education, rapid transport, mass media and globalization conspire to wipe out so many modes of expression in the name of progress? What exactly is a language (as opposed to a dialect)?

Author Mark Abley goes a long way to explain. As a Quebecer of Welsh descent, Abley is big on minority language survival. He travels to outposts in Australia, Oklahoma, Nunavut, the British Isles and France to report on the state of just a few of the thousands of threatened languages.

He investigates Mati Ke, an Australian aboriginal language with two living speakers (unfortunately forbidden by custom to speak to each other); also Yuchi, Yiddish, Mohawk, Provencal (or Occitan) and more. He writes about languages in which women and men use different words to express the same idea, a language where there is a word for "to love for the last time," languages that use verbs where English uses nouns, languages where the second person is the normal usage (not the first-person as in English), languages with 80 consonants and no vowels.

Abley also looks at the relationship between language -- how we say something -- and culture. Without one's own language, can our thoughts even be expressed? In many cases, Abley would argue, they can't. That's because many languages are very different in syntax and in vocabulary from Indo-European languages (a group that includes all but a few languages spoken in Europe today).

He spends time on the Isle of Man, where Manx Gaelic suffered a "near-death" and is now kept alive by the will of the island government -- and in Nunavut, where the native language Inuktitut suffers from low status and many professionals speak only English -- to Ontario and Quebec to examine valiant efforts to save Mohawk, which is giving way to English even in francophone Quebec.

In his final chapter, he visits Wales and outlines the dramatic fight to save Welsh, which started to see success in the 1980s -- a fight which still has not been won. Welsh is spoken by many people, but not in all situations. England's wealthy and its desperate poor -- many of whom are not learning the language -- are descending on the Welsh heartland. Fewer Welsh people now attend chapel, once the bastion of the language. Sadly, Welsh is a language that more and more people can speak, but that fewer and fewer do speak.

Spoken Here is a spirited defense of language diversity in a world of global English and, by analogy, Spanish, Russian, Arabic, Chinese, Indonesian -- Abley does not spend much time looking at the interaction of these other "imperial" languages on indigenous tongues; he spends little time outside countries where English and/or French are the main languages. The newly independent lands of the Soviet Union, or the sub-nationalities within Spain, might have offered some counterweight to the sad tales of language loss in the Anglo-American cultural orbit. Nor, outside of Yiddish, does he look at language survival in immigrant communities.

This book does offer some working advice on how to fight to save a language in today's world: You raise the tongue's social status, you consolidate dialects, you gain control of schools, government, media, pop music ... and you never let up for a moment. Paradoxically, it is both easier and harder to preserve language diversity today. Harder, because the global reach of imperial languages is so strong, but easier because people no longer believe smaller languages are low-status. The Internet, for instance, can be used either to crush diversity, or to enhance it.

Abley is an able writer with great curiosity. This is a very readable 240 pages on a fascinating subject.

- Rambles
written by David Cox
published 21 February 2004

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