Monday, November 5, 2007

Mark Abley's "Spoken Here" Book Review

Subtitled "Travels Among Endangered Languages," the fact that this narrative roamed among two Celtic ones, Manx and Welsh, added to its attractions for me. While six thousand languages are currently spoken, one dies every two weeks, and by the end of this century, perhaps half will be lost. With each one, as this book chronicles, a world of insight and millennia of wisdom vanish. You cannot recreate one from software and tapes anymore than, the author warns, you can bring cheetahs back to life from a vial of sperm and a National Geographic video. Or, as one informant tells him, it's like dropping a bomb on the Louvre, with each destruction of a tongue. Languages differ since they not only limit what we can say but what we must say.

For those, as with the Mohawks who learn their enormously complex, and verb-based (rather than noun-based as English and many non-American languages appear to have evolved) way of thinking and speaking, the need to recover ancestral speech is akin to a phantom limb, one which yearns to be reattached, reanimated. But, as Abley finds in all of his travels, the prognosis for successful recovery is slim. Still, as with Manx, a few fight the odds. The trouble is, it takes an act of will to resist giving in to the dominant language. A visit to the Inuit effectively dramatizes how "melting at the edges," the tendency to slip into English tugs every day at speakers of other languages. If, as in Welsh, Abley tells, one day all its speakers turned to one another and substituted "good morning" instead of "bore da," the language would be spoken of-- but only in the past tense. It would have died.

Abley explores Native Americans among the Yuchi in Oklahoma, an "isolate" not related to any other language and Mohawk in Canada. The force of governments, armies, preachers, and traders has won the world for English, it appears, everywhere he goes. With it comes conformity to the majority, and erosion of tribal or ethnic identity. His look at aboriginal Australia reveals that a creole of a half-dozen languages, done under pressure to communicate among themselves when the peoples were herded by missionaries a century ago into encampments, is arguably thriving, but smaller languages are dying. Similar to the Americas, the relentless force of global English-- itself the reluctant do-gooder or haphazardly sinister villain behind every chapter here, undermines, of course, the Celtic tongues, as does French that of the vernacular-- known by many contending names (is it a dialect? language? separate dialects?) in Provencal. In Israel and enclaves in the diaspora, on the other hand, the mama-loshen of Yiddish appears to be strongest in the male bastion among Hasidic males, contrary to its once-disparaged role as "servant girl" stealing away favors of the Lady of the house, according to intriguing century-old Zionist propaganda cited.

Chapters alternate efficiently between Abley's encounters with each of these languages and more general, if equally thoughtful, shorter overviews of language debates. Chomsky's deep structure and his assumption that we all process the world through basically the same set of hardwired codes hoarded wins the academic bout. But my sympathies and those of many minority language speakers appear to be with Sapir-Whorf: the Mohawk section provides eloquent testimony. Abley paraphrases his argument that language indeed constructs our cultural p-o-v from a summary of Brian Maracle's "Back to the Rez" that I quote in full:

"John carefully paddled his canoe through the rapids yesterday," we'd say in English. A Mohawk equivalent could take several forms, but typically it would go like this: "yesterday/ through the rapids/ his canoe/ carefully/ he paddled/ John." Brian compares the English version to a movie scene in which the camera focuses first on John, then on his boat, and finally on the scene around him. In the Mohawk version, time and landscape take precedence, followed by the boat and then by a man in the boat; personal identity comes last of all. "These two movies," Brian writes, "represent two drastically different ways of looking at life. . . The way that the English-speaking world structures its sentences explains to me, in a small way, why western society is so self-centred and narcissistic, why it is so fixated on the cult of the individual and why it is so obsessed with celebrities." (186-7)

Certainly, such a comparison makes me ponder the reach of the language we use here. Wal-Mart, Abley wonders in Oklahoma, could be a fine comparison to global English; but, a native corrects him. Unlike the mom-and-pop stores, the chain fails to stock other products. Instead, once it takes over, it features the generic brand. Same with English; convenience, ease of use, and predictability follow its hegemony. While the book could have been, for me, more detailed on Hebrew vs. Yiddish and the countercultural politics and music that heightened the mid-20c campaign for Welsh, this book moves quickly and lightly over such material. There are notes pointing readers who wish more information on academic topics.

Abley encourages us, and shows in his last chapter how we can help practically such efforts that justifiably link endangered languages with ecological threats. Perhaps we can ease the impact of global English in this age of franchises and superstores and monolingual products.

(Reviewed on Amazon today in slightly modified form.)

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