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Linguistic Ecology

Why the world's rich variety of languages is dwindling

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While reading Mark Abley's new book, I was reminded of an incident that happened during a tour of China with my brother in 1996. Our tour bus had overheated on the edge of the Gobi desert. Our national guide -- the official "handler" for our tour -- was looking into the engine with the driver, so out of idle curiosity we asked him what had caused the breakdown. To our surprise and amusement, the guide, whose English had been perfectly fluent for discussing history, geography, and even politics, shook his head sadly and said, "I'm sorry, but I do not have the English words to describe the problem." Mundane terms like "radiator" and "water pump" were simply missing from his English vocabulary. He knew the "big words," just none of the ones about how things actually work.

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.

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