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The Last Speakers: The Quest to Save the World's Most Endangered Languages

4 out of 5 stars 17 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-1426204616
ISBN-10: 1426204612
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Editorial Reviews

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From Booklist

Parallel to the extinction of biological species in our world, human languages are disappearing one by one. These tongues originated over millennia inside geographically isolated communities for whom modern methods of transportation and communication have proven mixed blessings. Harrison details the work of linguists who are speeding to preserve these tongues for posterity. He travels to Siberia to meet Aunt Marta, one of the last speakers of Tofa, a Turkic tongue. Although a scientist and a rigorous analyst of language grammars and structures, Harrison is particularly intrigued by the personalities of these mostly elderly yet fully engaged people who bravely face the end of what has been a nurturing society. Harrison compellingly details reasons why the rest of the world ought to care about these vanishing languages and what can be done to ensure that they live on despite the irresistible ascendancy of today’s rapidly evolving world culture. --Mark Knoblauch
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: National Geographic (September 21, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1426204612
  • ISBN-13: 978-1426204616
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #621,206 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Book review by Richard L. Weaver II, Ph.D.

If you are a world traveler as I am, you are likely to find this book fascinating. Why? The question is answered in Harrison's first paragraph of the book: "My journey as a scientist exploring the world's vanishing languages has taken me from the Siberian forests to the Bolivian Altiplano, from a fast-food restaurant in Michigan to a trailer park in Utah. In all these places I've listened to last speakers -- dignified elders -- who hold in their minds a significant portion of humanity's intellectual wealth" (p. 9).

Did you know that "80 percent of languages [are] yet to be documented"? Did you know that "the Yupik of Alaska name 99 distinct sea ice formations"? Did you know that "positive attitudes are the single most powerful force keeping languages alive . . . ?"

Talk about taking a position on language use, enjoy this: "`English Only' is one of the most intellectually ruinous notions ever perpetuated upon American society, and one of the most historically naïve. We have always been a multilingual society, even before we were a nation" (p. 13).

I found his first chapter, "Becoming a Linguist," absolutely riveting. His educational background, how he became language proficient, and his various travels and experiences. All of this information excites me not just because I am a world traveler but because I have an interest in language and people.

If you are interested in words, languages, and nonverbal communication, as I am, then his chapters on "The Power of Words," "Finding Hidden Languages,""Six Degrees of Language," and "Saving Languages," will be especially interesting.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
K. David Harrison has made yet another excellent contribution to the endangered language cause with this book. THE LAST SPEAKERS is an intimate and honest account of Harrison's path to endangered language work, interwoven with his own thoughts on the mainstream trends in linguistics today. Harrison has an elegant, persuasive style, and imbues his stories with tiny details that bring them to life and make them a joy to read. Harrison's fieldwork is a constant process of discovery about the world around him and a richening of the mind, which he shares unabashedly with the reader.

What I appreciate most about this book is Harrison's unapologetic yet humble presentation of his views, for which he has received much criticism, particularly for what many see as a conflation between linguistic knowledge and cultural knowledge. But Harrison has never tried to deny that he cares about more than just the languages he studies. For him, WHAT speakers are saying is just as important as the morphemes they say it with. In contrast to the many criticisms that have been leveled against him, it is clear that he understands there is a difference between knowledge of a language and knowledge of the world, and that the loss of a language doesn't necessarily mean loss of knowledge. But this misses the very point Harrison has worked so tirelessly to get across in all his works - that languages are intimately bound to the culture and environment they stem from. One cannot fully appreciate a language without understanding its cultural and environmental contexts.

In all, I found this to be an insightful book and a fun read, and I would recommend it without reservation to anyone.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Readers of When Languages Die will find much familiar in this book, but Last Speakers, published by National Geographic, will probably reach a much wider audience. And wider recognition is what is needed now.

The Last Speakers is carefully written and thought out, but lively and fascinating to read. I could barely put it down. The only thing that disappointed me about the book was that I could not hear what the languages sound like; I think books like this should come with CDs. However, poking around on YouTube, I was very happy to find the Enduring Voices channel, with videos of many of these endangered languages.

Also, I was saddened by some of the photos. How distinctive these people look in their traditional dress! and how that is lost when they put on Western clothes and follow global trends. The same with their languages.

I was appalled by Dr John McWhorter's idea that "some languages are not suited for the modern world because of their complexity." If that is the case, English should be the first to go! It's easy for you and me, but try explaining to someone that you can say "pick up the book" or "pick the book up," but only "pick it up" and not "pick up it." And you can say, "I'm looking for the book," but you can't say "I'm looking the book for." Why not? You can say "The car is picking up speed," but you can't say "The car is picking speed up." Consider "up." Walk up the stairs, write it up (or write it down), phone me up, look it up, a friend turned up so I put him up for the night, and he should give up smoking, but if you bring up the topic, he might say oh please shut up!

"I bought the book last year; I have had the book for a year.
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