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Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages

by Mark Abley

For over a decade, journalist Mark Abley has been worrying about the extinction of languages. “Each time we lose a language/the ghosts who made use of it/cast a new bell,” he wrote in his poem Glasburyon. The author of a travel book, Beyond Forget, Abley has returned to his roots with a curious addition to that genre, Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages.

Hundreds of languages are in decline, dozens are on the brink of extinction. So Abley went to Australia to hear the aboriginal language Mati Ke, to Oklahoma to meet the few native Americans who still speak Yuchi, to the south of France for Provençal, to the U.K. for Welsh and Manx, then returned home to Quebec for Mohawk and Yiddish.

But this is no mere travelogue. Abley has a thesis: languages are a unique expression of a culture, so if the language dies, the culture dies. Throughout the book he urges us to preserve languages on the brink of extinction. He likens language diversity to biodiversity: to destroy a mother tongue is the linguistic equivalent of burning down the Amazon rainforest.

While Abley’s arguments are heartfelt, they are muddled. He notes that many linguistics experts believe that a thought is not dependent on the language in which it is expressed, so the death of a language would not necessarily kill a unique worldview. But he chooses to ignore the experts and offers counter-arguments that are not very compelling. Without supportive evidence, the comparison of linguistic and biological diversity ends up sounding absurd.

The core problem here lies in Abley’s confusion of language and culture, and the assumption that both should be static rather than fluid. The red flag Abley is raising is really about American (or British or French) cultural domination; his great despair is the homogenization of the world’s peoples into one consumerist mass. But that is another issue entirely.