From: Daniel Hieber <dhieberrosettastone.com>
Subject: Dying Words
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Announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/20/20-1133.html
AUTHOR: Evans, NicholasTITLE: Dying WordsSUBTITLE: Endangered Languages and What They Have to Tell UsSERIES: The Language LibraryPUBLISHER: Wiley-BlackwellYEAR: 2010
Daniel W. Hieber, Endangered Language Program, Rosetta Stone
INTRODUCTIONContinuing the recent trend of writing towards a general audience on the issueof language endangerment (see Nettle & Romaine 2000; Crystal 2000; Harrison2007), 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 havefeatured primarily Asian languages (Harrison) or have offered a sweepingoverview (Crystal), this book's author, Nicholas Evans, comes from a backgroundin both Australian and Papuan indigenous languages, bringing new expertise, newdata, and a fresh approach to the set of popular books on the topic.
SUMMARYThe book has five sections, plus a prologue and an epilogue. The prologue openswith a vignette of Pat Gabori, one of the last speakers of the Kayardildlanguage indigenous to Australia. Evans presents a good example of what hasbecome the typical scenario for languages worldwide. He explains how, havingnever had a large speaker base, the language fell into decline after theimposition of colonial schooling and forcible relocation. He notes thatKayardild poses challenges for Universal Grammar, and that the language requiresconceptualizing the world in ways unfamiliar to English speakers (the languagehas absolute directional reckoning, rather than relative). This real-worldexample both gives the reader a preview of topics to come, and is representativeof endangered languages globally. Evans here introduces his central point forthe first time, which is that any one of these endangered languages may containa key to unlocking knowledge about the language instinct, human cognition, orworld 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 oflanguages'', 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 outthat Western tradition sees linguistic diversity as a detriment (as seen in theTower of Babel myth), whereas many cultures value diversity as a badge ofidentity. Continuing the biosphere analogy, Evans notes in Chapter 1 thatlanguages are adapted to meet a variety of different cultural and ecologicaldemands. He shows how the growth of the state has led to an unevenly distributedreduction in language diversity around the globe, measured in terms of the lossof distinct language families. Chapter 2 outlines the development of interest inlanguage and the tools available to document it, starting with the proselytizingefforts of the Catholic church and Spanish missionaries in the Americas, andthen the quest to reconstruct the divine languages, capped by a rising interestin linguistic diversity following Humboldt, Boas, Sapir, and finally Whorf.
Part II: A Great Feast of Languages, surveys typological diversity acrosslanguages in relation to sound, meaning, and grammar (phonology, semantics, andmorphology) (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 atthe unbreakable World War II code, then moving into a discussion of phonemicdifferences between languages. Artfully skirting a discussion of Sapir-Whorfism,the cross-linguistic discussion on semantics is a rich yet concise look at theissues speakers face in mapping meaning across languages. The chapter ends withan introduction to morphology via an examination of animacy hierarchies inNavajo. Chapter 4 presents a wealth of examples illustrating evidentiality inlanguage, and makes the point that language forces the mind to attend to certaincategories or features of the world around us.
Part III: Faint Tracks in an Ancient Wordscape: Languages and Deep WorldHistory, is the largest section of the book, falling squarely in the center andoccupying the most page real estate. It begins with an introduction tocomparative philology (Ch. 5), moves into a discussion of linguistic archaeology(Ch. 6), and ends with an interesting insight into how modern languages canunlock ancient writing systems (Ch. 7). Evans piques the reader's interest inChapter 5 with stories of Hrosný's decipherment of Hittite and Sir WilliamJones' discovery of the links between Sanskrit and Latin, sparking thedevelopment of modern comparative philology. After detailing the techniques ofthe comparative method, Evans explains the difference between synchrony anddiachrony, then illustrates how diachronic approaches can inform synchronicones. Chapter 6 covers the various subfields of linguistic archaeology,including dating archaeological sites, locating the origins and migrationpatterns of language families, and using toponyms in historical linguistics.Chapter 7 wraps up by looking at several cases in which modern languages helpedscholars to unlock previously undecipherable scripts.
Part IV: Ratchetting Each Other Up: The Coevolution of Language, Culture, andThought, includes the expected discussion of Sapir-Whorfism (Ch. 8), followed bya look at verbal art in oral societies (Ch. 9). In the introduction to thissection, Evans focuses on coevolution, pointing out that the ability to codeimportant information into languages decreases and in part replaces the load onour genetics for adaption, so that culture and learning can be seen ascoevolving with our genes. His examples of linguistic relativity draw from avariety of languages, and include excellent discussions of absolute versusrelative reckoning, metaphors for time, and shape and spatial systems inlanguages. Evans concludes the chapter by noting that Sapir-Whorfism is making a''comeback'' as more and more evidence points to the fact that our psychologicalcategories are influenced by language. He also suggests that a great deal can begained from expanded cooperation between linguists and psychologists. Chapter 9focuses primarily on epic oral poetry, what this requires mentally from aspeaker, and how they accomplish it. Evans cites evidence (Parry 1930) thatthere still exist orators capable of producing poetry on the scale and style ofHomer.
The last section, Part V: Listening While We Can, is where Evans turns to theprocess of language shift or death, and language documentation (Ch. 10). This iswhere he answers his original question, ''What do we do about it?'' He offers anumber of useful suggestions to those in the discipline, such as training'insiders' (native speakers as linguists), and notes the inconsistent practiceamong universities which admit PhD candidates with training in generallinguistics, but not those with deep knowledge of an understudied language. U.S.universities typically disdain language documentation as an acceptable doctoraltopic, despite its being ''about the most demanding intellectual task a linguistcan engage in'' (223). Evans also suggests using a combination of elicited andnatural data to address the fact that languages have an infinite combination ofutterances. As he notes in Part I, linguistics is not a science in the same wayas physics, because it rarely makes testable predictions. The great discoveriesamong minority languages are typically accidents, so we must simply obtain asmuch data as possible.
The Epilogue rounds out the book by recalling the death of the eloquentinformant Pat Gabori – a serious blow to the Kayardild language. Evans thenreturns to his original set of questions, and reiterates the book's centraltheme: ''The crucial evidence for any of these questions, and for others we haveyet to think of asking about, may lie in Eyak, Migama, Kayardild, Kusunda, orany of the world's 6,000 languages'' (231).
EVALUATIONEvans has made an outstanding contribution toward increasing awareness ofendangered languages with this book, and it deserves to be one of the go-tobooks on the topic. He does the lay reader a great service by presenting anengaging introduction to many central topics in linguistics in a style that isclear, intelligent, and profound. This book is an excellent choice for anyonewith an interest in language, linguist and non-linguist alike.
One of the merits of this book is that Evans approaches the topic from a vastlydifferent angle than others who have written on the topic. In some ways, itappears as though he set out precisely to present arguments which have beenoverlooked by other authors. Most notable is his section on world history (PartIII), and his decision to include chapters specifically on the scope oflinguistic diversity (Ch .1) and the history of our interest in it (Ch. 2). Andwhile other authors oscillate between discussions of endangered CULTURES – plusall the cultural and ecological knowledge that goes with them – and endangeredLANGUAGES, Evans stays firmly focused throughout the book on what is lost whenwe lose a LANGUAGE, even when discussing Sapir-Whorfism (the exception perhapsbeing his chapter on oral poetry).
Whether this is a merit or a detriment is open to interpretation. Consider DavidHarrison'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 theintrinsic value of the associated cultures instead. By contrast, Evans' mainargument, which he reiterates throughout the book, is essentially thatendangered languages are a rich and bountiful source of potential data foranswering many questions across a variety of scientific and humanistic fields ofinquiry. This utilitarian approach, while convincing, might be seen as operatingsomewhat aloof of the speakers themselves. In fact, much of Part III of Evans'book (Languages and Deep World History) tends to lose sight of endangeredlanguages in favor of major Indo-European ones, though this is due in part tothe fact that work in comparative philology has been done primarily onIndo-European languages. Evans does of course include excellent illustrativeexamples from endangered languages in this section as well, but these typicallycome at the end of the chapter and don't receive as much stage time as doIndo-European ones.
But on the whole the criticism that Evan's approach is too ''linguistic'' is anunfair one. Evans makes clear that he values the cultures which encompass theselanguages, as evidenced by his ''sense of despair at what gets lost when suchmagnificent languages fall silent'' (xviii). The book has several emotivevignettes and personal accounts of speakers of these dying languages, and one ofthe most impressive features of the book is the extent and variety of data Evansgives from endangered languages across the world. Rather than opting for stockexamples, which are easier to use but come from majority languages, he brings anabsorbing 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 iscautiously affirming. Evans adheres to the sensible claim that languageinterfaces with our psychological categories, thereby influencing them. He veryskillfully summarizes the topic in Chapter 8, containing its treatment to thatchapter alone. For an issue like language endangerment, where linguistic andcultural loss are so closely intertwined, it is difficult not to let questionsof linguistic relativity seep into most aspects of the discussion, muddling thestructure 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 asa lay reader to be given a discrete treatment of each topic.
Evans does an outstanding job laying out the framework for discussion, andkeeping to that framework throughout the book. He does this in athought-provoking manner, avoiding classic examples in favor of his own, oftenbetter ones. _Dying Words_ has its place among books for a general audience onlinguistics and makes a persuasive case for preserving endangered languageseverywhere.
REFERENCESCrystal, D. 2000. _Language Death_. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Harrison, D. 2007. _When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World's Languagesand the Erosion of Human Knowledge_. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Nettle, D.; Romaine, S. 2000. _Vanishing Voices: The Extinction of the World'sLanguages_. 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 REVIEWERDanny Hieber is Content Editor for the Endangered Language Program at RosettaStone. 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, andIñupiaq language groups to create Rosetta Stone software in their languages. Hisprimary interests are Swahili, and language documentation and revitalizationwith an eye towards theoretical implications for syntax and semantics.