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Wed Sep 12 2007

Review: Anthropological Linguistics: Harrison (2007)

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Message 1: Review: Anthropological Linguistics: Harrison (2007)
Date: 12-Sep-2007
From: Randall Eggert <>
Subject: Review: Anthropological Linguistics: Harrison (2007)
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Announced at AUTHOR: Harrison, K. DavidTITLE: When Languages DieSUBTITLE: The extinction of the world's languages and the erosion of humanknowledgePUBLISHER: Oxford University PressYEAR: 2007

Lameen Souag, Department of Linguistics, School of Oriental and African Studies,University of London

DESCRIPTIONIf you regard the lexicon as the least interesting part of a language, andcultural differences as a distraction from linguistics, then _When LanguagesDie_ provides reasons to reconsider; if you are already interested in semanticsand anthropological linguistics, it points to a variety of interesting topics,including a number drawn from the author's own fieldwork with Turkic minoritylanguages of Siberia. This book is an introduction for the general reader to howlanguages encode the environmental knowledge and cultural practices of theirspeakers, and how language endangerment worldwide threatens this.

The first chapter, ''A World of Many (Fewer) Voices'', discusses linguisticdiversity, why so many languages are in danger of disappearing or have alreadydisappeared , and why it matters. To the latter question, he gives threeanswers, expanded on throughout the book: languages encode valuable knowledgeabout the natural world and how humans interact with it; when a languagedisappears, a rich heritage of verbal arts goes with it; and every languagepotentially casts light on human cognition, and tests claimed linguisticuniversals. Aside from these, he points to the human tragedy of languageendangerment - children beaten for speaking their own languages, parentsregretting too late that their children don't speak their language - and theties between language endangerment and broader issues of colonialism and coercion.

The second, ''An Extinction of (Ideas about) Species'', addresses the ecologicalknowledge embedded in human systems of naming and talking about living things.He emphasizes that this is not just a matter of learning to distinguishdifferent species and inventing names for each. Rather, over generations alanguage comes to incorporate valuable information about different species'characteristics in its very vocabulary, and develops concise ways to packageimportant information about them, both aiding the transmission of thisinformation in a society without writing. It should be obvious to anyone who haslearned the technical vocabulary of (say) phonetics, or syntax, or computing,that a concise, standardized way to refer to and differentiate entities commonlyencountered in a given field is essential for working in, or even thinkingclearly about, that field; while the particular names chosen may to some extentbe arbitrary, the organization of a technical vocabulary and thedifferentiations it chooses to make are not. By that token, the tens of Tofawords for different colors and ages of reindeer (e.g. _chary_ '5-year-old malecastrated rideable reindeer') that the author describes are not merely aninteresting fact about Tuvan vocabulary, but an important part of the technologyof living off reindeer herding. Likewise, an animal name, or its classificationin a folk taxonomy, may convey information about its habits or uses, not justits appearance (let alone its deduced ancestry, a factor that in theory trumpsall others for taxonomists but is rarely of practical interest for others). Thusthe Wayampi classify six species of toucan and a hawk together as _tuk√£pewar_,the toucan family, because the hawk eats the same food as the toucans - wildfruits which are also edible to humans. One might imagine that such technicalvocabularies could readily be retained in the course of language shift; but inreality, language shift is generally accompanied by significant lifestylechanges, and these classification systems are even more endangered than thelanguages that host them. Among the Bari, a people of the Venezuelan rainforest,the loss of ethnobotanical knowledge was found to be about 40 to 60 percent injust a single generation.

The next chapter, ''Many Moons Ago: Traditional Calendars and Time-Reckoning'',describes some of the ''ecological calendars'' to be found in many parts of theworld, viewing them not as crude attempts to approximate the calculatedcalendars developed in urban civilizations but as ingenious tools encapsulatingknowledge needed for survival. In these systems, a month may be not only namedfor but defined by an observable annual event, such as the blooming of a floweror the snow falling on the mountains. Knowing the months implies knowing anevent characteristic of each; defining at least one by its event allows thelunar calendar to be re-synchronized with the solar one without any need forcalculations or day-counting. Shorter units of time, such as 'four days hence'or 'the time it takes a kettle to boil', are also discussed.

Chapter 4, ''An Atlas in the Mind'', discusses the linguistic encoding ofgeographical knowledge. Few skills can be more essential for a mobile group thanthe ability to keep their bearings; and the author argues that language plays animportant role in this. Concepts which can optionally be encoded in English,such as whether movement is uphill or downhill, are seen to be obligatorilyencoded in languages such as Lolovoli, where any kind of movement must bespecified as 'up' (i.e. hard to go, easy to come back), 'down' (vice versa) or'across' (no difference in difficulty either direction). Within even a singlehut with a level floor, movements will be specified as 'up' or 'down' withreference to the slope outside; and trans-island travel is 'up' or 'down'depending on whether it goes against or with the prevailing winds. In many ofthe languages discussed, place names are exceptionally numerous and are oftentransparent, with anatomical metaphors or mythical significance making them morememorable; equally important, geography is a regular topic of conversation.

''Silent Storytellers, Lost Legends'' takes a slightly different turn, looking atoral narrative and how it differs from the written kind, including all sorts ofimprovisations and gestures that are not captured by a transcription or apublication. He examines several cases of verbal arts in practice, and anindigenously developed orthography he came across in his own fieldwork.

In ''New Rice, Old Legends'', he moves to local biological knowledge and itserosion under the pressure of international agricultural methods. While thischapter is perhaps the least linguistic one in the book, he once againemphasizes the diversification of semantic fields relevant to a traditional wayof life and their likely impoverishment as that way of life changes; in thiscase, that semantic impoverishment corresponds to a genetic impoverishment, ashundreds of local strains of rice or millet are replaced by a handful of majortypes produced abroad.

''Endangered Number Systems'' goes beyond the usual discussion of different basesto examine a significant part of the diversity of number systems acrosslanguages and cultures, from body part counting systems that go beyond ourtwenty digits to cover elbows and nostrils to languages that express integersbetween the tens as motion towards the next ten, rather than using addition orsubtraction to reach the number from another ten. Inevitably, he brieflyaddresses the Pirah√£ question, but more as part of a wide range of possibilitiesthan as a unique special case. He also looks at Greenberg's typologicaluniversals of number systems, and a few exceptions to them, and notes that, withborrowing or pattern copying particularly common in this domain, number systemsare in many cases even more endangered than the languages in which they areembedded.

The final chapter, ''Worlds within Words'', departs somewhat from the book'soverall theme of semantics to examine typological diversity in general. Evenhere, semantics is never far away, with discussions on such issues as counterand classifier systems and obligatorily encoded politeness systems; but avariety of less semantic topics are rapidly touched on, from phonologicaldiversity and uses of reduplication to language change and the (so farunanswerable) question of whether one language can be more complex than another.He notes that without examining a variety of threatened languages we would nevereven be likely to suspect that certain structures (be they syntactic,phonological, or semantic; he gives examples of each) are possible in humanlanguage. If we had no data on a handful of Carib languages with very fewspeakers, for example, we would still be attempting to explain the imaginedimpossibility of basic word orders in which the object precedes the subject.

Between each of these chapters is a brief case study recounting a personalexperience with speakers of some particular endangered language, illustratingand bringing home the points in the previous chapter.

EVALUATIONI found the book engaging and non-technical enough to arouse the interest ofnon-linguists, but wide-ranging enough and well-sourced enough to appeal tolinguists as well. There are details that might be quibbled with, such as whathe acknowledges to be the inherently dubious efforts to count languages in thefirst chapter; and to some linguists its extensive discussion of diversificationwithin semantic fields may seem more like anthropology than linguistics. Butoverall, the book makes a good case that the study of vocabulary casts light onboth cognition and culture, and underlines the urgent need to document moreendangered languages better and to fix the social inequalities that usually playa large role in making them endangered.

ABOUT THE REVIEWERLameen Souag is a doctoral student at SOAS (London). He is examining, andseeking to explain differences in, the effects of long-term morphosyntacticcontact on two geographically isolated languages of the Sahara: Korandje, aSonghay language spoken in the Algerian oasis of Tabelbala, and Siwi, a Berberlanguage spoken in the Egyptian oasis of Siwa. He will begin fieldwork in late2007. He maintains a linguistics blog, Jabalal-Lughat (