- Hardcover: 304 pages
- Publisher: National Geographic; 1st edition (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: 17 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #571,379 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Last Speakers: The Quest to Save the World's Most Endangered Languages 1st Edition
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From The Last Speakers
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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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The only qualm I had with the book was that it seemed to come across very "Indiana Jones-y" at times--Harrison has a great point to make; that there are many languages and cultures in danger of being lost if there are not some sort of revitalization efforts, but sometimes it came off to me a bit hero-ish--almost as if Harrison was the super linguist swooping in to save these people and their language. Perhaps that vibe comes because the places these languages are spoken typically are very far off the beaten path, or perhaps because his research and this project in particular is supported by National Geographic. Even the subtitle, though, seemed like that of an upcoming Indy movie ("The Quest to Save the World's Most Endangered Languages). Don't get me wrong, it is a great book for anyone who is interested in learning more about endangered languages, but there were too many times when I got the feeling it was more about him and his "quest" of documenting languages on the verge of death than of helping cultures develop strategies to revitalize their endangered languages.
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." This is torturously difficult to explain to Chinese speakers, because in Chinese, it makes perfect sense to say "How long have you bought the book?" but nobody would say "How long have you had the book?" If you will be so kind, please explain how to use "the."
Once you get it into your hand, Chinese (traditional characters) is much easier to write than English, and lots more fun. You may write the wrong character entirely (such as, here for hear), but rarely write the word wrong. I have taught English for 35 years, but I still have to peek to write manage - manageable, response - responsible. So if complex languages are to be discarded, English goes first!
But back to endangered languages. This is a topic close to my heart, because I speak some Tayal and Tsou and bits and pieces of a couple other Taiwan aborigine languages. Did you notice Taiwan on the Language Hotspot map? For what it's worth, I am doing my best to see that these ancient, enthralling languages do not disappear, and books like The Last Speakers are a great help and encouragement, and not only for me. I can take this book, published by the internationally prestigious National Geographic Society, and point out Taiwan on the map and say, See? Your language is valued!
It's not all bad news. Last Sunday, I went to watch a play staged in downtown Taipei performed almost entirely in the Tsou language, and on Thursday took a Tayal tribal elder to watch this year's biggest box office hit, Seediq Bale (about a Taiwan aborigine uprising in 1930 against the Japanese; look for the trailer on YouTube), in which the main characters all speak Seediq. Then on Saturday in one of Taipei's main bookstores, I picked up a book (or picked a book up) about traditional Yami songs, complete with MP3, including such old favorites as The Toothache Song. The last couple of days, I have been amusing myself learning to sing The Hero Song in Truku. So there is good news, but we have a long way to go, and books like The Last Speakers contribute immensely to the effort. Thank you, Dr Harrison! And thank all of you concerned readers.
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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If you are a world traveler as I am, you are likely to find this book fascinating. Why?Read more