Randy McDonald (rfmcdpei) wrote,
Randy McDonald

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[REVIEW} Mark Abley, Spoken Here

Mark Abley's Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages is an interesting counterpoint to Nicholas Ostler's Empires of the Word. Ostler explored the winners in the global competition between languages, the ways in which a language's association with cultural prestige or economic acumen or political-military might encourage or discouraged its spread. Abley is concerned with the losers of this contest, the ones faced with more-or-less imminent language death.

Abley's survey of some of the more prominent of the world's threatened languages, their prospects, and their supporters got a good deal of attention when it was first published. This is plausible enough, given how the 20th century is the century in which the monolithic mass nationalisms and empires of the world broke down to reveal the minority cultures long hidden under an artificially homogenized political façade, when anthropologists and linguists demonstrated the continued value of disvalued languages. By the time that people came to this realization, though, the processes of language death were well-advanced. Throughout his travels, Abley comes across language activists--speakers of Provençal, Welsh, Mohawk, Manx, Yiddish, other languages--who are faced with the legacies a shift of a language's community of speakers to the locally dominant language. The prospects of full-fledged language revival are, too frequently, rare.

Spoken Here is quite right to conclude by noting the importance of minority languages' continued vitality, as a measure of cultural and political diversity. What Abley doesn't note is that the languages which have experienced a revival or expansion in use--Hebrew and Welsh described in his book, Catalan and Québécois French outside--have done so only because they have adopted the model of language planning traditional to the nation-state: demarcating a territory, making the language's use mandatory, encouraging mass education in and through this language in the territory's population. The inability of a Montréal Yiddishist to note that French in Québec is retaining its current speakers and acquiring new ones only because of an active and popular government policy, even as she bemoans the decline of Yiddish as a vernacular language among the Jews of that most active Diaspora Yiddish community, is telling. Languages can only thrive when people make them thrive. If you can't, as Abley documents, then they will die.
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