Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Silent words don’t speak loudest

About time we had a book review, isn’t it? And it’s a long one…

A while back – well, a year and a half ago, to be precise – I read and reviewed Melvin Bragg’s ‘The Adventure Of English’, lauding it as an excellent chronicle of the English language’s evolution into the dominant world language. Though Bragg’s tone is never triumphalist, and he does not shy away from acknowledging that the global “adventure” of English was often inextricably associated with the exertion of colonial power, he does argue that it is English’s adaptability and flexibility, its ability to absorb and adopt words from other tongues, that has ensured its status and richness.

In many ways, then, Mark Abley’s book ‘Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages’ can be read as the flipside of Bragg’s story. For, in nearly every case Abley examines, languages are audibly dying or – worse still – becoming extinct altogether because of the inexorable march of English into every corner of the globe. “Modern English”, he says, “is the Wal-Mart of languages: convenient, huge, hard to avoid, superficially friendly, and devouring all rivals in its eagerness to expand”. It’s an analogy that someone he meets later qualifies: “‘At Wal-Mart you can still buy the stuff that smaller stores used to sell. Languages aren’t like that. Languages are unique. English doesn’t sell other merchandise – it eliminates the other merchandise”.

The disappearance of languages around the world is not, Abley acknowledges, a new problem: “languages have always been in flux; languages have always died … But the sheer pace of change is unprecedented”. And, it almost goes without saying, very worrying to someone who, like the linguist David Crystal, articulates passionately the inherent value of the existence of different languages, each with its own unique qualities and characteristics. Adopting another analogy, Abley argues that there should exist the same imperative to protect and sustain endangered languages and linguistic diversity as there is to protect and sustain endangered species and ecological diversity. He reads the Tower of Babel story from the Bible as a blessing rather than a curse.

Another central objective of Abley’s book is to debunk the notion that languages come under threat of extinction and die out because they are “primitive” (and, by extension, their speakers “savages”): “The grammar and syntax of Mati Ke and Murrinh-Patha are just as elaborate, just as complex and intellectually demanding, as the grammar and syntax of any well-known European tongue. Being widely spoken does not make a language any better, more intelligent, or more perceptive that a language that has never spread beyond its birthplace”.

Of course, this goes against the grain of history. It was not only Christianity which was believed to be necessary to make “barbarous” natives become “civilised”, but English too. Those who refuse to submit to a “majority language” have traditionally suffered physical and psychological abuse at the hands of the supposedly “civilised” and “civilising” authority. Hard to believe it wasn’t too long ago that here in my current home country “pupils caught speaking Welsh wore a strap around their necks with a heavy piece of wood attached: a badge of dishonour, the infamous ‘Welsh Not’”.

There is a sense of injustice and indignation that fires Abley’s book, and this is in part what ensures it never threatens to become a dry textbook. As he is quick to acknowledge, he is not a specialist linguist. But, he adds, “[linguists’] voices are unlikely to be heard on the subject unless they speak out in terms that are lucid, intelligible and free from jargon” – which is precisely what he does. (He does however later note a welcome development within the academic sphere: “Linguists have been learning to act as partisans, campaigning on behalf of the languages they once set out to study in a cool, neutral light”.)

Despite Abley’s admission that he isn't a specialist, one early chapter discusses Noam Chomsky’s theory of language, and the countervailing Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, according to which – in very simple terms – language constructs the world (as well as reflecting it). If a language distinguishes between two shades of yellow, for instance, then that distinction exists for that speaker, when a non-speaker might just refer to both shades as yellow. The book is a (perhaps unsurprisingly) convincing endorsement of Sapir and Whorf’s theory.

Over the course of the book Abley immerses himself in a variety of threatened languages, including Yuchi, Manx, Provencal, Mohawk, Yiddish and some interrelated Aboriginal languages. It isn’t simply a pre-mortem, an attempt to preserve these languages in amber before they die out. After all, as he says, “languages are social creations, constantly being tested and renewed in the mouths of their speakers. They require use, not just study. You can no more restore a vanished language from a scholarly monograph and a software program than you can restore a population of cheetahs from a vial of frozen sperm and a National Geographic film”.

That’s why “this book is not just about threatened languages but about the people who speak them”. The languages Abley writes about are felt to be vital and real because his focus is as much on their speakers as on the languages themselves as abstract entities. In narrating the struggles to keep the flame of individual languages alive – the squabbles as well as the successes – the book has human interest at its heart.

Abley makes clear that not everyone is pulling in the same direction, not even those who ostensibly share the aim of saving a particular language. The fight to preserve the Mohawk language, for instance, is inextricably bound up with a resistance to cultural assimilation. It’s a political issue related to territory, one which has led to violence, bloodshed and imprisonment. And yet Mohawks are themselves split into factions, divided over issues of pronunciation and orthography.

It’s a similar if slightly more sinister story in the south of France, where disagreements between defenders of Provencal continue to impede the language’s rehabilitation. Again there are contentious political issues at stake, and Abley expresses his discomfort at the fact that the fervent desire to ensure Provencal’s survival often spills over into ugly xenophobia, immigrants being blamed for the dilution of “native” culture in classically racist rhetoric.

One of the book’s central messages is that these conservative defenders of the faith are misguided. Languages must be living to survive: “stasis is death … Any living tradition is also a tradition in flux”. But they have to adapt and evolve on their own terms, not as a result of external pressures. Abley notes that there is evidence that even major European languages – Russian, French, Polish, German – are “melting at the edges” because of the influence of English.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. There are, Abley says, good reasons for not falling into “a despairing fatalism”: “On a global level the triumph of English may seem unstoppable, but on a local level you can find innumerable tales of a bullheaded refusal to submit”.

Here he’s referring to Manx, but he might as well be talking about Welsh – or Cymraeg, to give its proper name. In a chapter of particular interest to me given my recent move, Abley looks at Cymraeg as an example of a flourishing minority language, celebrating those schools that actively encourage the learning and speaking of the language (for English immigrants as well as for "natives") and the way S4C has directly countered the incursion of English via popular culture (incidentally, I learned that the channel was “won” by Plaid Cymru leader Gwynfor Evans who threatened to go on hunger strike to the point of death unless Maggie followed up her pre-election pledge to bring it into existence).

Even then, Abley acknowledges the intimidating difficulties of learning the language’s multiple grammatical mutations, and notes the ever-present threat of English, lurking at the border. Certainly, the picture the pressure groups Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg and Cymuned paint on their websites isn’t all rosy.

Overall, though, Abley’s tone is lyrical without ever becoming elegiac. ‘Spoken Here’ is a superb book, brilliantly written and researched, keenly observed and – best of all – passionate.

And if that’s not enough to sell it to you, there are also the fascinating and frequently hilarious trivia titbits ripe for pub conversations…

* One in every six languages comes from New Guinea.

* In Yiddish, gestures used to accompany an adverb can significantly qualify its meaning – there is a gesture to accompany the word “late”, for instance, that means “sort of late, but not too late”.

* As the German scientist and explorer Humboldt discovered, the last known speaker of the Atures language of South America was a parrot.

* Amongst the verbs of the Boro language of north-east India are: “zum”, “to wear or put on clothing for the upper part of the body”; “egthu”, “to create a pinching sensation in the armpit”; and “gobray”, “to fall into a well unknowingly”. Yes, I know what you’re thinking – “How did I ever do without a word for that?”

* For the Lokele people of the eastern Congo, intonation and pitch matters so much to meaning that the word for “fiancée” and the phrase for “I’m watching the riverbank” mean “rubbish dump” and “I’m boiling my mother-in-law” respectively if pronounced in a different way. There’s definite sitcom potential there, methinks…

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