I was just down at St. Mark’s Bookshop picking up the latest LRB (recommended by Beth); taking a gander at the new releases, I saw a book by Mark Abley, Spoken Here, that I restrained myself only with difficulty from taking right to the cash register. From the publisher’s site (linked above):
Languages are beautiful, astoundingly complex, living things. And like the many animals in danger of extinction, languages can be threatened when they lack the room to stretch and grow. In fact, of the six thousand languages in the world today, only six hundred may survive the next century. In Spoken Here, journalist Mark Abley takes us on a world tour — from the Arctic Circle to the outback of Australia — to track obscure languages and reveal their beauty and the devotion of those who work to save them.
Abley is passionate about two things: traveling to remote places and seeking out rarities in danger of being lost. He combines his two passions in Spoken Here. At the age of forty-five, he left the security of home and job to embark on a quixotic quest to track language gems before they disappear completely. On his travels, Abley gives us glimpses of fascinating people and their languages:
• one of the last two speakers of an Australian language, whose tribal taboos forbid him to talk to the other
• people who believe that violence is the only way to save a tongue
• a Yiddish novelist who writes for an audience that may not exist
• the Amazonian language last spoken by a parrot
• the Caucasian language with no vowels
• a South Asian language whose innumerable verbs include gobray (to fall into a well unknowingly) and onsra (to love for the last time).
Abley also highlights languages that can be found closer to home: Yiddish in Brooklyn and Montreal, Yuchi in Oklahoma, and Mohawk in New York and Quebec. Along the way he reveals delicious linguistic oddities and shows us what is lost when one of the world’s six thousand tongues dies — an irreplaceable worldview and a wealth of practical knowledge. He also examines the forces, from pop culture to creoles to global politics, that threaten these languages. Spoken Here is a singular travelogue, a compelling case for linguistic diversity, and a treasure trove for anyone who loves any language.
Scroll down the linked page for an interview with the author (the supposedly extinct Manx is apparently alive and well) and a Glossary of Threatened Languages (Provençal: Branda li moustacho en quaucun: to stare defiantly at someone; literally, ‘to wag his mustache’). Being a cheap bastard (I buy so many books I have to be) I will wait, impatiently, for the paperback to shell out for this, but if anyone needs a gift idea…