We might conclude from this example that the more direct, immediate, and local the experience, the harder it is to translate it out of one's native language. All around the world, as Abley documents in Spoken Here, formerly isolated communities with languages that reflected the complexities of their experience of nature are losing their linguistic heritage as the last speakers of the local languages die off. Spoken Here contends that the deaths of human languages are just as much a loss to human culture as the extinctions of living organisms are to the biosphere.
Abley's analogy makes good common sense, but, as he acknowledges, it runs against the grain of academic thought. The leading modern theory of language acquisition, developed by MIT linguist Noam Chomsky, holds that language grows naturally in children as a direct result of the structure of mental functioning. Languages as different as English and Chinese emanate from the same deep structure in the brain, and one language ought to be as good as the other for describing how a bus engine works.
Abley, while admitting the academic dominance of Chomsky's theory, prefers the more intuitive approach developed earlier in the 20th century by Edward Sapir and his student Benjamin Whorf. According to the Whorf-Sapir Hypothesis, each language constructs its own specific perspective on human experience; thus the death of a language implies the loss of a version of the world whose extinction might be as regrettable as that of a potentially medicinal plant species in the Amazon rainforest. To investigate this idea, Abley, a Canadian journalist and poet, traveled from Australia to Southern France to Oklahoma and Wales to interview native speakers of threatened languages and the activists who are trying to keep those languages alive.
Abley's lack of technical expertise in linguistics turns out to be a boon for the reader. Without intellectual pretense or jargon, he enthusiastically shares his fascination for languages that stuff whole sentences into one word, comfortably use verbs without subjects, and produce sounds that defy conventional alphabets. Despite all their beauty and distinctive precision in describing their environments, Abley discovered one overriding, numbing truth about minority languages. They fade away if the young people don't learn to speak them. Everywhere he goes, from the Yuchi Indians of Oklahoma to the Manx of the Isle of Man in Great Britain, Abley talks to earnest people who tape record elders, hold classes in dingy community rooms, and petition governments. Most of these efforts are clearly futile when the traditions and experiences encoded in the languages have little appeal for young people intoxicated by global consumer culture.
The language of that global consumer culture, of course, is English. English has become the language of virtual reality, international commerce, technology, and entertainment. Some of the most disturbing information in Abley's book concerns the growing anxiety, especially in Asia, to learn English as the language of prestige and power. All service workers in Beijing, for instance, must demonstrate some command of English before the 2008 Olympics or lose their jobs. Korean parents have their children undergo painful tongue operations, supposedly to help them pronounce English better.
In effect, English has become an engine for the homogenization of the world -- and the word. No matter how much we native speakers of English benefit in convenience from its increasing dominance, Spoken Here shows clearly how our exportation of vague abstractions, catch phrases, acronyms and techno-speak -- disconnected from direct contact with the physical reality of life -- will pull up the linguistic roots of more and more cultures.
And Now You Can Go by Vendela Vida (Knopf). Here's a small masterpiece that came out of nowhere. In her first novel, Vida writes of a young woman whose life is seriously threatened one day by an armed man. She talks him out of killing her, and the rest of the book (a quick 190 pages) is about how she re-enters everyday life. But this isn't one of the usual "poor victim on the road to recovery and discovery" soaps that often pass for literature. Vida writes in stripped down, muscular prose that grabs your attention while keeping her story zooming along. Her insights are filled with real life's ambiguities and feel honest and hard-earned. A very impressive debut.
Predators, Prey and Other Kinfolk by Dorothy Allred Solomon (W.W. Norton). A wholly fascinating memoir, one of the best to come along in quite some time, by a woman who was the 28th of 48 children born to a Mormon fundamentalist polygamist -- a group that's also been written about recently in Jon Krakauer's Under The Banner of Heaven. This book takes the reader fully into the day to day life of a patriarchal subculture that has as many as 100,000 adherents. The separation from "others" not like them and the constant maneuverings and fear of being arrested went hand in hand with a feeling of spiritual superiority and exclusiveness. Solomon is an honest writer with a gift for evincing whole emotional landscapes with small, telling details. An astonishing book.
PaperbacksAfter by Steven Brill(Simon & Schuster). Subtitled "How America Confronted the September 12 Era," this is a wide, panoramic view of the US in the year after the September 11 attacks. Brill cuts between many different people and locations, from the White House and corporate boardrooms to victims' families' ordeals and ordinary Americans' lives. The overall portrait of the country that emerges from Brill's mosaic is of a mostly well-meaning people doing what they think is best to deal with harsh and sad new realities, punctuated by disturbing portraits of profiteers looking to cash in, and an utterly clueless Attorney General who's willing to throw out the Bill of Rights in his desperation to appear competent. The scope of Sept. 11's effects is breathtaking, and Brill's creation of such a powerful book out of such disparate patches of information is quite an achievement.
The Floating City by Pamela Ball (Penguin USA). The Floating City, set in 1890s Hawaii, feels serene, or perhaps just detached, yet it's also a gripping and unsettling short novel. Eva Hanson, a Norwegian newcomer to the island, is caught up in the case of the death of a wealthy island man suspected of being a supporter of the island's imprisoned queen. That central plot is intriguing, but it takes an emotional backseat to Hall's portrait of Hawaii as it was being transformed by missionaries, plundering sugar growers and, eventually, the US army. As the plot unfolds, Ball's book becomes a meditation on the upheavals and destruction brought by colonialism.
-- John Grooms, Bruce Nims, Dana Renaldi