AUTHOR: Evans, Nicholas
TITLE: Dying Words
SUBTITLE: Endangered Languages and What They Have to Tell Us
SERIES: The Language Library
Daniel W. Hieber, Endangered Language Program, Rosetta Stone
Continuing the recent trend of writing towards a general audience on the issue
of language endangerment (see Nettle & Romaine 2000; Crystal 2000; Harrison
2007), this book aims to show what is lost when languages die, why this matters,
and what we should do about it. Whereas previous books on the topic have
featured primarily Asian languages (Harrison) or have offered a sweeping
overview (Crystal), this book's author, Nicholas Evans, comes from a background
in both Australian and Papuan indigenous languages, bringing new expertise, new
data, and a fresh approach to the set of popular books on the topic.
The book has five sections, plus a prologue and an epilogue. The prologue opens
with a vignette of Pat Gabori, one of the last speakers of the Kayardild
language indigenous to Australia. Evans presents a good example of what has
become the typical scenario for languages worldwide. He explains how, having
never had a large speaker base, the language fell into decline after the
imposition of colonial schooling and forcible relocation. He notes that
Kayardild poses challenges for Universal Grammar, and that the language requires
conceptualizing the world in ways unfamiliar to English speakers (the language
has absolute directional reckoning, rather than relative). This real-world
example both gives the reader a preview of topics to come, and is representative
of endangered languages globally. Evans here introduces his central point for
the first time, which is that any one of these endangered languages may contain
a key to unlocking knowledge about the language instinct, human cognition, or
world history. The prologue ends by introducing the concept of the ''logosphere''
(a term coined by Michael Krauss) to refer to the world's diverse ''ecosystem of
languages'', with a call to protect it.
Part I: The Library of Babel, is an introduction to language diversity (Ch. 1)
and the history of our academic interest in language (Ch. 2). Evans points out
that Western tradition sees linguistic diversity as a detriment (as seen in the
Tower of Babel myth), whereas many cultures value diversity as a badge of
identity. Continuing the biosphere analogy, Evans notes in Chapter 1 that
languages are adapted to meet a variety of different cultural and ecological
demands. He shows how the growth of the state has led to an unevenly distributed
reduction in language diversity around the globe, measured in terms of the loss
of distinct language families. Chapter 2 outlines the development of interest in
language and the tools available to document it, starting with the proselytizing
efforts of the Catholic church and Spanish missionaries in the Americas, and
then the quest to reconstruct the divine languages, capped by a rising interest
in linguistic diversity following Humboldt, Boas, Sapir, and finally Whorf.
Part II: A Great Feast of Languages, surveys typological diversity across
languages in relation to sound, meaning, and grammar (phonology, semantics, and
morphology) (Ch. 3), as well as evidentials or 'Social Cognition in Grammar'
(Ch. 4). The Navajo language is the star of Chapter 3, beginning with a look at
the unbreakable World War II code, then moving into a discussion of phonemic
differences between languages. Artfully skirting a discussion of Sapir-Whorfism,
the cross-linguistic discussion on semantics is a rich yet concise look at the
issues speakers face in mapping meaning across languages. The chapter ends with
an introduction to morphology via an examination of animacy hierarchies in
Navajo. Chapter 4 presents a wealth of examples illustrating evidentiality in
language, and makes the point that language forces the mind to attend to certain
categories or features of the world around us.
Part III: Faint Tracks in an Ancient Wordscape: Languages and Deep World
History, is the largest section of the book, falling squarely in the center and
occupying the most page real estate. It begins with an introduction to
comparative philology (Ch. 5), moves into a discussion of linguistic archaeology
(Ch. 6), and ends with an interesting insight into how modern languages can
unlock ancient writing systems (Ch. 7). Evans piques the reader's interest in
Chapter 5 with stories of Hrosný's decipherment of Hittite and Sir William
Jones' discovery of the links between Sanskrit and Latin, sparking the
development of modern comparative philology. After detailing the techniques of
the comparative method, Evans explains the difference between synchrony and
diachrony, then illustrates how diachronic approaches can inform synchronic
ones. Chapter 6 covers the various subfields of linguistic archaeology,
including dating archaeological sites, locating the origins and migration
patterns of language families, and using toponyms in historical linguistics.
Chapter 7 wraps up by looking at several cases in which modern languages helped
scholars to unlock previously undecipherable scripts.
Part IV: Ratchetting Each Other Up: The Coevolution of Language, Culture, and
Thought, includes the expected discussion of Sapir-Whorfism (Ch. 8), followed by
a look at verbal art in oral societies (Ch. 9). In the introduction to this
section, Evans focuses on coevolution, pointing out that the ability to code
important information into languages decreases and in part replaces the load on
our genetics for adaption, so that culture and learning can be seen as
coevolving with our genes. His examples of linguistic relativity draw from a
variety of languages, and include excellent discussions of absolute versus
relative reckoning, metaphors for time, and shape and spatial systems in
languages. Evans concludes the chapter by noting that Sapir-Whorfism is making a
''comeback'' as more and more evidence points to the fact that our psychological
categories are influenced by language. He also suggests that a great deal can be
gained from expanded cooperation between linguists and psychologists. Chapter 9
focuses primarily on epic oral poetry, what this requires mentally from a
speaker, and how they accomplish it. Evans cites evidence (Parry 1930) that
there still exist orators capable of producing poetry on the scale and style of
The last section, Part V: Listening While We Can, is where Evans turns to the
process of language shift or death, and language documentation (Ch. 10). This is
where he answers his original question, ''What do we do about it?'' He offers a
number of useful suggestions to those in the discipline, such as training
'insiders' (native speakers as linguists), and notes the inconsistent practice
among universities which admit PhD candidates with training in general
linguistics, but not those with deep knowledge of an understudied language. U.S.
universities typically disdain language documentation as an acceptable doctoral
topic, despite its being ''about the most demanding intellectual task a linguist
can engage in'' (223). Evans also suggests using a combination of elicited and
natural data to address the fact that languages have an infinite combination of
utterances. As he notes in Part I, linguistics is not a science in the same way
as physics, because it rarely makes testable predictions. The great discoveries
among minority languages are typically accidents, so we must simply obtain as
much data as possible.
The Epilogue rounds out the book by recalling the death of the eloquent
informant Pat Gabori – a serious blow to the Kayardild language. Evans then
returns to his original set of questions, and reiterates the book's central
theme: ''The crucial evidence for any of these questions, and for others we have
yet to think of asking about, may lie in Eyak, Migama, Kayardild, Kusunda, or
any of the world's 6,000 languages'' (231).
Evans has made an outstanding contribution toward increasing awareness of
endangered languages with this book, and it deserves to be one of the go-to
books on the topic. He does the lay reader a great service by presenting an
engaging introduction to many central topics in linguistics in a style that is
clear, intelligent, and profound. This book is an excellent choice for anyone
with an interest in language, linguist and non-linguist alike.
One of the merits of this book is that Evans approaches the topic from a vastly
different angle than others who have written on the topic. In some ways, it
appears as though he set out precisely to present arguments which have been
overlooked by other authors. Most notable is his section on world history (Part
III), and his decision to include chapters specifically on the scope of
linguistic diversity (Ch .1) and the history of our interest in it (Ch. 2). And
while other authors oscillate between discussions of endangered CULTURES – plus
all the cultural and ecological knowledge that goes with them – and endangered
LANGUAGES, Evans stays firmly focused throughout the book on what is lost when
we lose a LANGUAGE, even when discussing Sapir-Whorfism (the exception perhaps
being his chapter on oral poetry).
Whether this is a merit or a detriment is open to interpretation. Consider David
Harrison's _When Languages Die_ (2007), where Harrison also asks the question
''What do we lose when a language dies?'' but often seems to be arguing for the
intrinsic value of the associated cultures instead. By contrast, Evans' main
argument, which he reiterates throughout the book, is essentially that
endangered languages are a rich and bountiful source of potential data for
answering many questions across a variety of scientific and humanistic fields of
inquiry. This utilitarian approach, while convincing, might be seen as operating
somewhat aloof of the speakers themselves. In fact, much of Part III of Evans'
book (Languages and Deep World History) tends to lose sight of endangered
languages in favor of major Indo-European ones, though this is due in part to
the fact that work in comparative philology has been done primarily on
Indo-European languages. Evans does of course include excellent illustrative
examples from endangered languages in this section as well, but these typically
come at the end of the chapter and don't receive as much stage time as do
But on the whole the criticism that Evan's approach is too ''linguistic'' is an
unfair one. Evans makes clear that he values the cultures which encompass these
languages, as evidenced by his ''sense of despair at what gets lost when such
magnificent languages fall silent'' (xviii). The book has several emotive
vignettes and personal accounts of speakers of these dying languages, and one of
the most impressive features of the book is the extent and variety of data Evans
gives from endangered languages across the world. Rather than opting for stock
examples, which are easier to use but come from majority languages, he brings an
absorbing new set of data to the existing set of books on the topic.
One final note of praise is for Evans' treatment of Sapir-Whorfism, which is
cautiously affirming. Evans adheres to the sensible claim that language
interfaces with our psychological categories, thereby influencing them. He very
skillfully summarizes the topic in Chapter 8, containing its treatment to that
chapter alone. For an issue like language endangerment, where linguistic and
cultural loss are so closely intertwined, it is difficult not to let questions
of linguistic relativity seep into most aspects of the discussion, muddling the
structure of the book. There are many who would see this as a detriment,
pointing to the inseparability of language and culture, but it is refreshing as
a lay reader to be given a discrete treatment of each topic.
Evans does an outstanding job laying out the framework for discussion, and
keeping to that framework throughout the book. He does this in a
thought-provoking manner, avoiding classic examples in favor of his own, often
better ones. _Dying Words_ has its place among books for a general audience on
linguistics and makes a persuasive case for preserving endangered languages
Crystal, D. 2000. _Language Death_. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Harrison, D. 2007. _When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World's Languages
and the Erosion of Human Knowledge_. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Nettle, D.; Romaine, S. 2000. _Vanishing Voices: The Extinction of the World's
Languages_. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Parry, Millman. 1930. Studies in the epic technique of oral verse-making, vol.
1: Homer and the Homeric style. _Harvard Studies in Classical Philology_ 41.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Danny Hieber is Content Editor for the Endangered Language Program at Rosetta
Stone. He holds a B.S. in Linguistics and Philosophy from The College of William
& Mary in Virginia. Currently he is working with the Chitimacha, Navajo, and
Iñupiaq language groups to create Rosetta Stone software in their languages. His
primary interests are Swahili, and language documentation and revitalization
with an eye towards theoretical implications for syntax and semantics.