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Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages Paperback – April 4, 2005

ISBN-13: 978-0618565832 ISBN-10: 0618565833 Edition: Reprint
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

There are roughly 6,000 languages in use in the world today, most of them spoken by a tiny number of people-further proof of humanity's ability to generate intoxicating variety. Sadly, the processes of linguistic imperialism may still be as strong as they have ever been; expansion of the major world languages, particularly English, is, according to Abley, likely to bring about the elimination of most of these languages by century's end. Canadian journalist Abley shrewdly frontloads his book with some of the most exotic languages before moving on to better-known cases (which are also considerably less at risk) such as Proven‡al, Yiddish and Welsh. Readers who think they "get" how languages work may be startled by the considerable deviation from Western norms: for instance, Murrinh-Patha, spoken in Australia, boasts a bewilderingly complex system of pronouns; Mi'kmaq, from eastern Canada and Maine, and Boro, a northern Indian tongue, all but eschew nouns. To read these accounts of dwindling languages-and their often forlorn, marginalized speakers-is to gain insight into the powerful colonial forces still in play. Abley's informal approach makes this more a travel book than a language book; while describing the people and places in affecting detail, he sometimes stints in depicting the languages. Abley also sometimes conflates the extinction of a language with that of the people who speak it; however, his contention rings true that the disappearance of these languages represents "a loss beyond estimation." This generous, sorrow-tinged book is an informative and eloquent reminder of a richness that may not exist much longer.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From The New Yorker

Of the six thousand or so languages that exist today, more than ninety per cent are endangered. Abley has travelled as far afield as arctic Canada and the Timor Sea documenting the survival strategies or last gasps of some of these languages. The state of Israel resurrected Hebrew, albeit at the expense of Yiddish and Ladino. Faroese, a descendant of Old Norse, is a source of pride to the inhabitants of the Faeroe Islands, but the young "see Faroese as embodying the past, Danish the present, and English the future." English, the language of the marketplace, is spoken by more people than any other language in history, and Abley seems resigned to the judgment of Li Yang, who claims "to have taught English to more than twenty million Chinese": "Chinese people don't learn English because they love it, but because Coca-Cola and Microsoft rule the world."
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books; Reprint edition (April 4, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0618565833
  • ISBN-13: 978-0618565832
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.8 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.3 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (25 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #254,889 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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54 of 56 people found the following review helpful By G. B. Talovich on October 18, 2003
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
In Wulai, the aboriginal village I live in, the cutoff is in the twenties. Those over thirty speak Tayal (also Atayal; an Austronesian language of Taiwan) as their first language. Those under twenty understand it pretty well, but rarely speak more than a few phrases. I make a point of speaking to children in my rudimentary Tayal, so they can practice ¡V and show off - without the embarrassment of being caught making a mistake. I nag parents to encourage their children to speak Tayal: if you don't, a tradition of over six thousand years will die with you. Several tribal elders have asked me to teach them how to write Tayal in roman letters. Children are elated to see their grandparents struggling with pen and paper, and this encourages them to repeat what their elders are saying. The administration started Tayal classes in Wulai Elementary, but I hear funding is being cut now that the Party feels one hour of Tayal a week is not going to bring them votes. Tayal is losing ground to Mandarin. What is to be done?
What is to be done? Spoken Here is practically a handbook for me, of things I can try, things I can avoid, in my personal crusade to impress Tayal on the next generation. The author is alert to cant, dogma, and dead-end thinking, so the reader can see the fallacies of certain viewpoints. The writing is fluid and informative. His sympathy to the speakers of these languages makes their plights come alive.
I wish books like this came with a CD. Looking at the word Tayal, did you have any clue that it is pronounced dah-YEN? If I write a Tayal word such as qsnuw or mksingut, does that give you any idea of how to pronounce it? I would love to hear what Yuchi, Wangkajunga, or Mohawk actually sound like (although a friend who has been there told me Welsh sounds like angry geese).
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21 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Friederike Knabe VINE VOICE on March 22, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Have you ever wondered how you would react if *your* language was threatened with extinction? Would you miss it at all? What more would you lose than words and phrases? Mark Abley tracked the world for 10 years to pursue these and related questions. His discoveries make for an intriguing read spiked with some learning about local tongues like Boro, Yuchi, Provençal or Manx.

Language is used to express the worldview of its speakers, bur does it also shape and influence it? Are the connotations that a word's meaning carries consciously passed on? Many traditional languages have in common that they are more complicated in their grammar than modern ones. Some prescribe human kinships in great detail and maintain a different vocabulary for each gender to use. Does these aspects have a bearing on the human interrelationships? The author pursues the answers from the elders, language teachers and linguistic experts. Of particular interest to him are languages that structure sentences around verbs rather than nouns, as we are used to. Placing the "action" in the centre of a phrase results in a different perspective on life, he argues, making it more inclusive of the surroundings and reducing the primary role of the self. The Boro language, spoken in northern India, has one-verb expressions that require full sentences when translated into English: "gagrom", for example, means "to search for a thing below the water by trampling" or "mokhrob" - to express anger by a sidelong glance. Mohawk must be one of the most complex languages in its use of verbs. In addition to describing the action "a verb must indicate the agent, recipient and the time of the action".
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By B. Capossere TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on December 1, 2003
Format: Hardcover
From my viewpoint, a book of this sort is almost bound to end with a somewhat middling review. First, it is comprised of several sections, which although clearly tied together by the same issue are really wholly independent of one another. As is often the case in these sort of things, some sections stand out as particularly strong, some as merely average, and others as a bit weak. Secondly, the book is clearly not focused so much on the linguistics, yet cannot cover the topic without resorting to some linguistics. It is not solely a travel book, yet because the author does in fact journey to these dying languages it is partly a travelogue. Partly this, partly that--it is difficult for a book to overcome that sort of mongrel construction.
So yes, this book has its weak moments, its points where you wish he either delved more into the languages themselves or more into the settings/societies. But if Abley hasn't hit a homerun here, the book is more often successful than not and it does have some standout moments.
Language death is often discussed in abstract terms and one of the strengths of this book is that the author shows us the impact on actual living, speaking (for now) people. This has the effect of making the loss of such languages as Provencal or the aboriginal languages of Australia be felt more sharply by the reader. The sadness, the resigned weariness of these last few speakers of a dying language is hauntingly conveyed in their conversations with the author, lending the book an elegaic tone throughout much of its pages. Few of these stories will have happy endings and Abley's interviewees face that fact bluntly, as does the reader.
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