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Revitalizing Endangered Languages

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Revitalizing Endangered Languages "This guidebook provides ideas and strategies, as well as some background, to help with the effective revitalization of endangered languages. It covers a broad scope of themes including effective planning, benefits, wellbeing, economic aspects, attitudes and ideologies."

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Review of  Are Some Languages Better than Others?

Reviewer: Laura Dubcovsky
Book Title: Are Some Languages Better than Others?
Book Author: R. M. W. Dixon
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Issue Number: 30.200

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This short volume focuses on languages as they are today. Dixon describes universal and particular linguistic structures as well as main language functions, drawing examples mostly from languages spoken in remote areas of northeast Australia, Papua, Taveuni, and Southern Amazonia. In the first chapter the author is committed to “Setting the scene.” He positions linguistics as a natural science, which as such is required to follow mandatory steps of description, explanation, prediction, and evaluation. Among key functions, language assists in the process of belonging, cooperative endeavor and social organization. It constitutes a vehicle for displaying emotions and aesthetic expressions, conveying scholarly information, and developing skills of persuasion, exhortation and argumentation. The numerous examples do not only illustrate the distinctive purposes but also serve to demystify misconceptions about the superiority of written over spoken languages.

In Chapter 2, “How languages work,” Dixon situates languages in context, as “Each chunk … can be fully appreciated only in terms of the linguistic event (conversation, speech, etc.) of which it is a part, and the social context within which this occurs” (p. 24). The author analyzes commonalities as well as varied realizations of main grammatical and lexical components. For example, some languages do not mark gender, while many have two (feminine- masculine), others three (feminine - masculine - neuter), and even four (Jarawara and Dyirbal) and seven (Swahili) gender markers. By the same token, word classes may assume different roles in different languages. For examples, kinship relations (“father,” “daughter,” etc.) are usually assigned to nouns, but Yuman languages from California use verbs to signal the relationship (“John is Mary’s father”); qualities and numerals (“good,” “two”), frequently represented by adjectives, are assigned to verbs in the Jarawa language (“amosa” means “to be good”), etc.

The following three chapters examine “What is necessary” (Chapter 3), “What is desirable” (chapter 4), and “What is not (really) needed” (Chapter 5) in all known languages. Among the recurrent features are: speech acts (statements, commands, and questions), negation, possessive case, transitive and intransitive clauses, copula verbs, and multiple techniques to link clauses and achieve succinct communication; yet these common traits may have different ways of realization. For example, the universally accepted classification between animate and inanimate objects is subdivided more subtly in Dyirbal and Swahili, which add other categories, such as “edible plant foods,” and “trees, plants, and their useful products,” respectively. Likewise, the worldwide understanding of a temporal continuum that contains past, present and future events, is challenged by Washo languages spoken in Nevada, as they classify the past tense into four categories--earlier today or last night, yesterday or a little earlier, within the speakers’ life time, and before the speaker was born--and the future tense into three subdivisions of immediate (up to a few hours from now), more distant (but still within today), and tomorrow (or any time later).

Dixon also elaborates on optional features that may contribute to or hinder the building of a language. For example, English includes irregularities in verbs (“went” or “sought”), plurals (“children” or “teeth”), and suppletion of adjectives (“good” and “bad”) in their comparative and superlative forms (“better/ best,” and “worse/worst,” respectively), which may obscure the meaning and create difficulties for native and second language speakers. In contrast, redundancies and reduplications are not only needed but highly desirable to secure a more efficient communication. The author exemplifies grammatical redundancies through the repetition of the gender suffix, such as in the Portuguese phrase, “A menina nova, alta, bonita,” in which the article, the noun and the three adjectives show the feminine case in the suffix. By the same token Dyirbal uses a set of affixes to show lexical redundancies through verbs of movement and locational adverbs that reinforce the meaning of movement, location, directionality and distance, such as “moving up-hill” and “crossing down the river.”).

After the detailed description of mandatory and optional linguistic traits, Dixon poses the question, “How about complexity?” In Chapter 6 he focuses on grammar and wonders, “Is it the case that: ‘the more complex the better’? (p. 125). He claims that languages are in constant flow, and therefore they gain and lose complexity, according to their position, size, prestige, and homogeneity between ethnic groups. While languages with a large number of speakers tend to smooth out irregularities, languages spoken in smaller communities usually have more specific parameters, specialized markers and refined systems of evidentiality. The author also analyzes the complexity determined by languages in contact, by which one community’s grammar and lexicon can affect the other, and in some cases this influence may evolve into new dialects or creoles. These linguistic, social and historical changes bring about increasing levels of complexity; which yet is not enough to evaluate the relative worth of languages.

In the following chapter Dixon moves into lexical complexity and questions, “How many words should there be?” He finds that a complex vocabulary depends more on the incorporation of technical terms and nominalized phrases than on the quantity of isolated words. First, specific terms that describe jobs (loom operation), habits (camel’s drinking frequency), characteristics (cattle varieties) and kinship relationships (son’s parents-in law or the wife’s sister’s husband) more accurately build on a more sophisticated vocabulary and assume a more familiarized audience with specialized fields of knowledge. Second, concrete word classes--like adjectives (“deep”) and verbs (“imitate”) --can be transformed into more abstract nominal categories (“deepness or depth” and “imitation,” respectively). While synonyms usually increase the number of words of a language, they do not always convey the exact meaning (compare “to try” and “to attempt'') and are usually chosen for the stylistic reason of avoiding repetition. The author does not focus on grammatical (“-s” for plurals, third person singular and possessive case) and lexical homonyms (“hot” indicates both high temperature and spice food) thay may carry ambiguity. Therefore the author concludes that lexical complexity moves from quantity to quality of more specialized and abstract words.

Chapter 8 defines “The limits of a language.” The first section highlights particular realizations among languages, such as the definiteness treatment of articles, several meanings within modal verbs, ranked degrees of evidentiality systems, roles of inclusiveness among personal pronouns, etc. Dixon observes that regardless the broad variability, every language constitutes an ordered framework that provides speakers with linguistic choices. The second section focuses mainly on translation and the grammatical and lexical difficulties between different linguistic systems. For example, languages that have distinctive alienable/inalienable markers may require a convoluted circumlocution when they are translated into languages with simpler possessive case. Languages do not need to share the same perspective and therefore they may follow a different word order: in English a person “caught a bad cold,” whereas in other languages “a bad cold caught the person.” Above all cultural statements are very hard to translate, as languages do not have a common set of beliefs and value system. The chapter also refers to the benefits of bilingualism and exemplifies speech styles in two diglossic communities (Swiss Germans and Dyirbal speakers).

Finally, Dixon reframes the title of his book and moves into the participants, circumstances and goals of the interaction. Chapter 9 relates linguistic qualities according to varied goals, asking whether languages are ,“Better for what purpose?” On the one hand, if better languages are those that fulfill multiple linguistic functions, then they will comprise complexity, unceasing flux and multifaceted changes. On the other hand, if the purpose is for a linguist to write grammar or compile dictionaries, or for an educator to produce teaching materials, then better languages will be easier, neatly segmented and well-structured. The chapter closes with a common list of linguistic features given by second language learners who live in English speaking communities. In spite of the fact that the speakers do not share the same first language, they all long for the following linguistic features: (1) distinctive formal/ informal treatment to address the interlocutor, (2) incorporation of colorful idioms that serve as ice-breakers and release interpersonal tension, (3) presence of emotive lexemes that cannot easily be rendered in English, and (4) ease of expressions that allows more free movements in the sentence.

Dixon proposes a balanced system to reach “An ideal language” (Chapter 10), as he indicates through examples of different language components. At the phonological level, the author favors sufficient contrast between sounds in order to convey meaningful distinctions, “but not so many as to make the language more difficult than the norm to easily enunciate, or for the listener to readily comprehend” (p. 222). At the morphological level, Dixon evaluates an appropriate three-term scale for demonstratives, as it perfectly distinguishes (closer to farther) distance from the speaker. At the lexical level the author agrees that an ideal vocabulary will comprise general and technical terms, relating to everyday and specialized knowledge, lifestyle and social organization. Dixon closes the book by “Facing up to the question” (Chapter 11). He invites the reader to re-assess the mentioned features, following personal criteria and using other languages for comparison, as the book is “…in essence, speculation- a hypothesis awaiting confirmation” (p. 246).


Dixon chooses a provocative title to analyze the role and functions of language. Above all, “Are some languages better than others?” highlights that each of the several thousand languages spoken today around the globe serves many social purposes. The author offers a handy book that summarizes key linguistic components in a brief and dynamic fashion. As announced already in the preface, the simple (“although not simplified”) style will reach a general audience interested in linguistic matters. In addition, Dixon’s vast knowledge of Dyirbal, Yidiñ and Jarawara helps to strengthen the exposition of general topics and the particular argument that spoken languages involve highly intricate grammar and sophisticated lexicon. Moreover, the book manages to tap into an extended list of current issues in linguistics, from difficulties in cultural translations to the comparison of the linguistics discipline to other natural sciences, and from the understanding of monolingual and bilingual speakers to the presence of diglossic societies.

Although the author offers clear explanations that can be easily followed by lay and specialized readers, sometimes he uses an unnecessarily condescending tone, as in Chapter 6, where he previews that the first sections “are far more demanding,” and invites the reader “to skip these discussions, and take up the story again in section 6.3” (p. 127). Moreover the author introduces issues of bilingualism and second language acquisition in a quite abrupt manner in Chapter 8. While he denies the statement that “the human brain has room only for one language” (p. 188), he overlooks complicated variables of language and cognition, probably due to space constraints. We suggest that the author devote further elaboration to these heavily loaded subjects, as that would produce more answers to the original question of the book title.
Laura Dubcovsky is a retired lecturer and supervisor from the Teacher Education Program in the School of Education at the University of California, Davis. With a Master’s in Education and a PhD in Spanish linguistics /with special emphasis on second language acquisition, her interests tap topics of language and bilingual education. She is currently dedicated to the preparation of in service bilingual Spanish/English teachers, especially on the use of Spanish for educational purposes. She also volunteers as interpreter in parent/teachers conferences at schools and translates programs and flyers for the Crocker Art Museum, bilingual school programs and STEAC. She also collaborates as a reviewer with the Linguistic list serve, the Southern California Professional Development Schools and bilingual associations. For more than ten years she has taught a pre-service bilingual teachers’ course that addresses communicative and academic traits of Spanish, needed in a bilingual classroom She published “Functions of the verb decir (‘to say’) in the incipient academic Spanish writing of bilingual children in Functions of Language, 15(2), 257-280 (2008) and the chapter, “Desde California. Acerca de la narración en ámbitos bilingües” in ¿Cómo aprendemos y cómo enseñamos la narración oral? (2015). Rosario, Homo Sapiens: 127- 133.

Format: Paperback
ISBN-13: 9780198817833
Pages: 288
Prices: U.S. $ 21.95