Monday, April 16, 2012

The last speakers: The quest to save the world's most endangered languages

By K. David Harrison

Book review by Richard L. Weaver II

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 na├»ve.  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.  Harrison is a good writer, and he brings his stories to life through clear descriptions, excellent word choice (what would you expect?), and by talking directly to the reader.

In the first of these chapters, “The Power of Words,” Harrison says, “At some deeper level, human cognition may be the same no matter what tongue one speaks.  But languages package knowledge in radically different ways, facilitating certain means of conceptualizing, naming, and discussing the world” (p. 59).  To me, this is fascinating stuff.  It is in this chapter, too, where the slaughter of a sheep is described in great detail and following exactly the Monchak (a migratory tribe in Mongolia) routine.  Of this experience, Harrison writes: “Collecting words during a sheep slaughter could not have been further from a dry academic discussion of how grammar is constructed.  Yet it revealed a richness and precision about the Monchak way of talking, indeed of how they apprehend the world” (p. 69).

Incidentally, the chapter on “Finding Hidden Languages” has nothing to do with nonverbal communication — like Edward T. Hall’s book, The Hidden Dimension (Anchor, 1990) .  A “hidden language” is defined by Harrision in this way: “. . . some communities are known only locally and have managed by chance or design to avoid being identified in official records, censuses, and surveys and by scientists.  I propose to refer to languages that have eluded prior notice by outsiders as ‘hidden languages’” (p. 119).  Harrison’s description of the tiniest Koro village in India, called Kichang was exhilarating. (Pp. 123-127) This is just one of many, many stories throughout the book that were truly galvanizing — like his trip via the Trans-Siberian Railway to Tofalaria with its language of Tofa — “This corner of the world lies virtually untouched, inhabited by only about 800 souls, most of them native Tofa hunters and reindeer herders, along with a few Russians who have migrated or married into the community” (p. 223).  Unbelievable, fascinating, and engaging.

The chapter titled “Six Degrees of Language” is named after the famous trivia game, “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon,” and the point is a simple one: “We are all connected, and it is language, not film, that plays the greatest role in spinning the links between us” (p. 153).   Harrison end this chapter saying, “Because it is so powerful in shaping our worldview and our self-view, I cannot regard people being coerced — no matter how subtly — into abandoning their languages as anything other than a form of violence.  It represents an erasure of history, of creativity, of intellectual heritage. . . .” (P. 177).

 In the final chapter, “Saving Languages,” Harrison mentions seven ways in his section “How to Save a Language.”  And even though they are listed and discussed, Harrison admits: “We may not know for decades which strategies [for saving a language] succeed.  But we can observe and admire their efforts [those who make the attempt], and perhaps as scientists or outsiders contribute to their cause” (p. 270).

I loved this book, and I know those who travel and those who love language will appreciate Harrison’s explorations, stories, and passion.  But, if you enjoy good writing, excellent story-telling, and a fascinating read, you’ll enjoy this book, too.

The last speakers: The quest to save the world’s most endangered languages can be purchased at

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