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Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages (2003)

por Mark Abley

Outros autores: Ver a secção outros autores.

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640936,382 (3.71)30
"In Spoken Here, Mark Abley journeys around the world seeking out languages in peril - Manx, Mohawk, Boro, Yiddish, and many more. 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 to wipe out 90 percent of languages by this century's end." "Abley encounters one of the last two speakers of an Australian language whose tribal taboos forbid them to talk to each other. He spotlights those who believe that violence is the only way to save their tongue. He meets a Yiddish novelist who writes for an audience she knows doesn't exist. He pays tribute to such strange tongues as the Amazonian language last spoken by a parrot, the Caucasian language with no vowels, and the South Asian language whose innumerable verbs include gobray (to fall in a well unknowingly) and onsra (to love for the last time)." "Each of the languages Abley spotlights, from the familiar to the foreign, exemplifies the various threats that endanger languages worldwide. But many also prove their resilience, thanks to the efforts of their determined speakers and such unlikely tools as soap operas and pop music. From the crusaders to the uncaring, Abley draws surprising insight from this centuries-old debate."--BOOK JACKET.… (mais)
Adicionado recentemente porfschwak, Omsoro23, uhmanoasaas, Den85, natmcq, natkatjac, dfuhriman
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review of
Mark Abley's Spoken Here - Travels Among Threatened Languages
by tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE - April 16-21, 2017

Skip this, READ THE full-length review: "Unfortunately, no longer spoken here": https://www.goodreads.com/story/show/548094-unfortunately-no-longer-spoken-here?...

This is the 2nd bk I've read on this subject. The 1st one was Daniel Nettle & Suzanne Romaine's Vanishing Voices - The Extinction of the World's Languages (You can read my full review of that here: https://www.goodreads.com/story/show/524556-biolinguistic-diversity?chapter=1 ). I gave Vanishing Voices a 5 star review, the maximum here, but sd that it deserved an "11". At 1st, while I was reading this one, I was thinking it doesn't quite deserve as high praise but, WTF, I'm still giving it a "5" &, yes, it's a fantastic, important bk. Kudos to the author, he did a magnificent job. I'm deeply impressed. I hope hope hope hope hope more people read this bk & others like it. Really. Please.

I've been researching endangered languages for an 'opera' that I'm (d) composing called Endangered Languages, Endangered Cultures, Endangered Ideas & I'll never even begin to do justice to the subject - esp considering that the opera is so experimental that its relevance to the subject at hand might not even be obvious to appreciators of such things. No matter. That's why I read this bk. This review will be excerpted from for the libretto.

"A minority language always depends on popular will. It dies as its voices fade in the midst of PalmPilots, cell phones, and Walkmans. It dies as its remaining speakers find they have less and less to talk about.

"The price of that loss is beyond estimation. We have grown used to giving cultural artifacts a dollar figure: so many thousand for a Yeats manuscript, so many million for a Ming porcelain. But a language is more than any artifact. You can't slap a price tag on a language, no matter how small and obscure, any more than you can pin down the financial value of an ivory-billed woodpecker or a bill of rights. Mati Ke lacks the ever burgeoning scientific terminology of English and Japanese, nor does it enjoy a written language. But like all other human languages, it is a full and rich expression of a way of life, a culture, an identity. Whether or not it ever makes sense to use the term "primitive society," the phrase "primitive language" is an absurdity." - pp 4-5

A previous owner of this bk had pencilled in the margins next to the above-quoted: "rather poetic, don't you think?". I've been saying for a long time, maybe decades, that I think that endangered languages are being pushed out by technical ones & that the endangered languages are more poetic. These days I think it's more accurate to say that the endangered ones are more metaphorically sensitive to the environment in wch they're spoken.

"But a CD-ROM of an extinct language bears an uneasy resemblance to a stuffed dodo." - p 6

I found that a particularly interesting comparison insofar as there is no such thing as a "stuffed dodo", they're all composites made from other bird parts & artistry, no dodo was ever preserved. Did Abley know this when he wrote that? B/c, if he did, that makes the comparison even more apt.

"In Oklahoma, for example, I spent some time among the few remaining speakers of the Yuchi language. Yuchi is what linguists call an isolate: it bears a clear relation to no other living tongue. I wanted to discover what knowledge and understanding may die with Yuchi if it does indeed disappear." - pp 7-8

Exactly. As I later agree w/ the author as I read deeper in this bk, I prefer the Whorfian position that each language helps produce a distinct world-view - as opposed to a Chomskian position that no language can be that distinct from another b/c of inherent shared traits between all languages.

"Chomsky and his followers assert that all human languages depend on a generative grammar (or GG) that underlies the bewildering twists and wriggles words make on the surface of speech."

[..]

"Emphasizing the shared properties intrinsic to every language, they refuse to see any merit in the "Sapir-Whorf hypothesis," which influenced many scholars from the 1930s through the 1950s. As set out by Benjamin Lee Whorf (a brilliant amateur linguist, whose lack of a doctorate has often been held against him) and his great mentor Edward Sapir, the hypothesis suggests that the language a person speaks determines the way that person thinks." - pp 45-46

Whorf's key point is that conceptual content can't always be easily and exactly interchanged among languages: what is said and how it is said interact in complex ways." - p 47

""How," Devitt and Sterelny ask, "Could anything a person does to his experience — how could any of his modes of representation — affect stones, trees, cats and stars?"" - pp 47-48

The representation of cats as companions rather than as food might affect them, eh?!

"Let's return to the extraordinarily limited range of nouns by which Devitt and Sterelny symbolize "the world." They single out stones, trees, cats, and stars as emblematic of items that no mode of human representation can possibly affect, Is this as accurate as it is obvious? When you look at the words more closely, the self-evident truth of the proposition begins to blur.

"To begin with, there's a little ambiguity in their meaning. Our collective experience has a direct impact on stars like Madonna, cats like Wynton Marsalis, and Stones like Mick Jagger. But a broader, subtler answer is this: we signal our attitude to things in the world — cats, for example — by the way we talk about them. "The cat that spent the night in the rain" may have less of a claim on our affections than "the cat who spent the night in the rain." "Who is that cat in your arms?" suggests something different from "What is that cat in your arms?" (not to mention what is that cat doing in your arms?"). Language implies feeling. Feeling, one way or another, inspires action.

"Leave the confines of English behind, and the waters muddy even further. With the aid of the Concise Oxford Turkish Dictionary, I decided to see how those four nouns are expressed in a language far removed from the Indo-European family to which English belongs. Turkish is the largest member of the Altaic family; thousands of years, perhaps tens of thousands, have gone by since our remote ancestors (somewhere in central Asia, presumably) spoke the same words. In Turkish, I discovered, "cat" is kedi. But kedi-balugi, far from being a "catfish" as the literally translated compound says, is what we call a "lesser spotted dogfish." A kedi, unlike a cat, is involved in phrases meaning "to go bankrupt," "to cause bad blood," and "to look at with intense longing." A "stone" is a tas, most of the time. But a stone in the kidneys or gallbladder is kum hastaligi — in which case it indisputably affects your personal experience. And a çekirdek is also a stone, one you might unearth in a plum or an olive. Still, a Turkish stone would generally be called a tas. But a tas, I regret to say, is not always a stone. Sometimes it's what we call a chess piece. At other moments it's an allusion or an innuendo.

"Are stars — the heavenly variety, I mean — any simpler? Alas, no. A Turkish star can be a yildiz or a baht, and both are tied up in human lives. Baht can signify "good luck" or "destiny." Yildiz also implies deestiny, but it has the extra sense of "pole star" or "north." Finally we arrive at trees. There are several Turkish options. But the likeliest word, listed first on the page, is agaç. Troublee is, agaç also means "wood" or "timber." And surely the fate of trees can be profoundly affected by whether we think of them — in the mind's eye, in the same breath, always — as timber. (Consider the difference between the phrases "I like cows" and "I like beef.") English enforces a distinction between the living organism of a tree and the useful material that organism provides. Turkish does not.

"Perhaps, then, the inexhaustible, inviting world does show evidence of being constructed, to a significant degree, out of our linguistic experience." - pp 49-50

Ordinarily, I wdn't quote so much at one time. However, I think that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is a deeply significant one that's worth defending at length. Neither Chomsky nor Sapir-Whorf is in favor of seeing languages & their speakers become extinct - but when one is of the opinion that entire world-views are at stake that seems to dramatically up the ante to me.

"Above all, I wanted to test my own hunch that the looming extinction of so many languages marks a decisive moment in human history — a turning away from vocal diversity in favor of what optimists see as a global soul and others as a soulless monoculture." - p 8

Count me as among the latter. Even among my younger anarchist friends I see a more or less unquestioning preference for Hollywood spectacles & their imitations over anything created from a more independent mass-media-questioning position. B/c of this monoculture I feel like the information in my head is of little or no interest to almost anyone anymore. Why do they 'need' it? There's always the latest app, the latest tv show, the latest same-old same-old sports spectacle. & I'm in a place that 'benefits' from the spoils of this monoculture. Yuk.

"What will we lose if our abundance of languages shrinks to a fraction of what now survives? A speaker of English or Chinese might answer differently from a speaker of Mati Ke. The simplest response, perhaps, is this: we will lose languages that are astonishingly unlike any widespread tongue. Languages employ sounds and organize the mental world in ways that are natural to their speakers but can seem downright weird to other people. Nootka, one of the languages of Vancouver Island, is a case in point. As the linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf once noted, to express the idea "He invites people to a feast" Nootka requires but a single word: tl'imshya'isita'itlma. Literally, "Boiling result eating those go to get somebody." Not quite so literally, "He, or somebody, goes to get eaters of cooked food." The Nootka would alter their speech — adding hissing noises or extra consonants for effect — when they were talking to or about children, fat people, short people, left-handed people, circumcised males, lame and hunchbacked people, greedy people (also ravens), and people with eye defects." - pp 8-9

Now, maybe, just maybe, somebody was pulling somebody's leg here. If they were, they had a great sense of humor. Is there just one word in English to express inviting people to dinner? Not that I know of. Maybe the Nootka-speaking culture is more sociable in that way. That's important.

"Guugu Yimidhirr, the source of "kangaroo," may still have a dozen or two speakers. But the languages that first told of koalas and kookaburras are no more." - p 15

What if linguists were able to take a closer look at the etymologies of such words? There might be stories there giving substantial insight. I think of things like: "The Trukese name for the night of the full moon is bonung aro, meaning "night of laying eggs." - p 74 (Vanishing Voices) In other words, a name that might seem fanciful or mystical might actually refer to specific biological knowledge.

The thing is, I'm one of those people who prefers that all knowledge be preserved but that's a pretty tall order, eh? It's probably too much for even the collective human mind to endure. Hence, some knowledge is lost, over & over, & human 'progress' is dubious.

Spoken Here was published in 2003. In it, Abley mentions that the "latest edition of Ethnologue, a directory of the world's languages, lists 417 as "nearly extinct." Of these, 138 are in Australia: a third of the total." (p 16) I have the 15th edition of the Ethnologue (2005), having been exposed to it by reading Vanishing Voices, & I can happily attest that it's what cliché language might call an 'invaluable resource'. What I didn't glean from reading Vanishing Voices is that the Ethnologue is a religious product:

"The Derbyshires' work in Brazil had been paid for by a controversial organization called SIL International — formerly the Summer Institute of Linguistics. Based in Dallas, Texas, SIL is among the largest employer of linguists in the field — linguists, that is, who actually study the world's languages rather than engaging in arcane analysis of the structural underpinnings of speech. Every few years SIL publishes an updated version of Ethnologue, an invaluable catalogue of each of the world's languages along with its dialects, its family relationships, an estimate of its speakers' numbers, and the principle countries where they live. The institute has long done terrific work. Yet its motives are open to question. SIL is part of the Wycliffe Bible network — a group of Protestant missionary societies, drawing their inspiration from a verse in Matthew and a few more in Revelation: "After this I beheld, and lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands; And cried with a loud voice . . ." Christian praise must be uttered in every human language — or so goes one interpretation of the text — for only then can the world come to an end.

"You could say, in brief, that SIL is in the business of saving languages so that they will all disappear." - pp 237-238

"For a critical view of the Summer Institute of Linguistics (to use its old name), see David Stoll's Fishers of Men or Founders of Empire? The Wycliffe Bible Translators in Latin America (London: Zed Press and Cultural Survivial, 1982). SIL's own Web site gives a much more secular view of the organization than does www.wycliffe.org. In July 2002 the Wycliffe site said: "Pray for the SIL training sessions going on in North Dakota and Oregon. Pray the God will enable each student to learn the basics of linguistic analysis. Pray too that God will burden the students' hearts for Bible translation."" - p 295

Oh, well, at least there're some protestants out there as fanatical as the Jesuits. Having been raised in a Christinane household, the woman who introduced my mom & stepdad was a missionary. I remember her telling a story once about walking some steps in Brazil when she came across some sort of native religious ceremony, perhaps the sacrifice of a chicken (why do chickens always get such a bad deal?). The missionary was horrified b/c, after all, Christians had made sure such religions were made illegal. How dare the people of the country she & her ilk were invading practice their own religion?!

"The location of a language, from an Aboriginal perspective, was decided in the Dreamtime. But the location of Wadeye — now the largest Aboriginal community in the Northern Territory — was selected by Father Richard Docherty, a missionary who founded the place in the 1930s and christened it Port Keats."

[..]

"Murrinh-Patha became a lingua franca." - p 18

"The recurrent isolation has helped keep Murrinh-Patha strong. For this is one of the very few traditional languages in Australia whose speakers have increased in number over the past generation. Lately it has spread beyond Wadeye to neighboring areas.

"Simplicity is not a reason for the language's success. Some of its complexities seem mind-numbing — unless you're willing to take the plunge and call them mind-expanding. In its pronoun system, where English slices the world into singular and plural, Murrinh-Patha has four categories: singular, dual (with forms that vary for two males, two females, and siblings), paucal (meaning three to about fifteen people, and again using different terms for males, females, and siblings), and plural (more than fifteen people). Each of these categories, moreover, has separate words for the first person ("we two males," for example), the second person ("you two males"), and the third person ("those two males"). "How are you?" we say in English, no matter how many people we're addressing and who they happen to be. Murrinh-Patha is a lot more precise. For "you," it compels a choice among nhinhi, nankunitha, nankungitha, nanku, nankuneme, nankungime, and nanki." - pp 18-19

& that's the lingua franca! I wonder if people for whom Murrinh-Patha is a 2nd language (or 3rd, etc) frequently make mistakes like referring to a hetero-couple as '2 sisters'. I can imagine a plethora of giggle-potential. I like imagining whole long stories just based around differentiating. & what about more-than-15 being plural? Why 15? Is 15 a traditional family gathering & most groupings beyond that involving more than family? Let's say 4 grandparents, 2 parents, 2 uncles, 2 aunts, 3 of the 3rd generation & 2 babies? At any rate, there must be a perceived need for such specificity that most English-speakers don't feel. That, in itself, is interesting.

But then, alas, we get back to human nature at its most depressing, or, at least, the 'human nature' of conquering peoples.

""Yabbering" and "jabbering" are interesting words. They show up all over the English-speaking world whenever a speaker feels like sneering at animals or a minority people. Look up "jabber" in the Oxford English Dictionary, and you'll find quotations in which the term applies to monkeys, Flemish servants, seabirds, and Jews. It often betrays contempt, the dictionary observes, for "the speaking of a language which is unintelligible to the hearer."" - p 21

Bringing us back to such derogatory terms as "subhuman" & "savage". Ignorance covers its tracks by degrading what it's ignorant about - if someone doesn't speak a language then that language isn't worth speaking, it's just 'jabber'. Yuk.

"many speakers of Yolngu and other Aboriginal languages have become convinced of the existence of a "secret English" — a version of English that has special, even sacred force."

[..]

"This is a fantasy, of course. Or is it? Words do have power. Across Australia, many of the worst massacres of Aborigines took place after books and magazines had appeared calling them "a species . . . of tailless monkey," "the lowest race of savages in the known world," - p 41

&, indeed, this is very important to understand: mass media spreads certain perceptions, it defines people & ideas for the masses, it propagandizes for or against - & this can have very serious consequences. Take, eg, Donald Trump's Press Secretary Sean Spicer's recent statement that Adolph Hitler, who fatally gassed millions of citizens of his own country & of the countries that Germany had invaded, hadn't used chemical weapons against his own people: "You had someone as despicable as Hitler who didn't even sink to using chemical; weapons." ( https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/apr/11/sean-spicer-hitler-chemical-weap... )

Regardless of whether Spicer is really as much of an imbecile as he seems, the effect of his statement is to reinforce holocaust denial versions of history. Such denial is a way of covering over genocide & paving the way for a 'good nazi' myth that appeals to Trump's nazi & white supremacist supporters. BEWARE. ( )
  tENTATIVELY | Apr 3, 2022 |
Even better than his Prodigal Tongue, Mark Abley's explorations of diminishing (and the very occasional not-yet-diminishing) languages fascinated me from beginning (aboriginal Australian) to end (Welsh). The political implications of Mohawk and Iroquois, the literary ones of Proven��al and Occitan, the religious ones of Yiddish and Hebrew (and Ladino, Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Proven��al and Judeo-Persian, of which I had heard of only the first), are endlessly intricate and packed with meaning and possibility.

Imagine the philosophical posers that cultures with several different forms of first-person plural (they and I but not you; two others and I and you; more than two others and I and not you, and so forth) could present to the Indo-European language speaker. Try to grasp the mindset of a someone whose speech relies on state of being as well as, or separate from, location and linear time. Mourn the knowledge that would be lost if the words for plants and their uses specific to pinpoint locations on the edges of maps were forgotten. Wonder how four different words for pre-dawn light can remain useful if their speakers sleep indoors.
1 vote ljhliesl | May 21, 2013 |
Despite the author having said something incredibly dumb like "I'm not a linguist but I can still write about languages... you know, like you don't have to study ANATOMY to talk about the body" I'm continuing to read this book. He did lots of travel and does have some linguistic knowledge. But what a stupid thing to say. ( )
1 vote amaraduende | Mar 30, 2013 |
Very interesting book. Mark Abley travels to several parts of the world where languages are nearing extinction, including the Isle of Man, and Indian Reserves in Quebec. I especially enjoyed his discussions of how different languages express different world views -- we are at risk of losing more than a few minority languages, we are really at risk of losing diverse perspectives.

Easy to read, thought-provoking and you will learn something. Perfect combination! ( )
2 vote LynnB | Jun 14, 2012 |
This was really quite a fascinating book. Mark Abley tours the world, seeking languages that are disappearing as their last native speakers pass away. It was surprising how many of these there are.

Some of the most interesting aspects of the book were the times when he was able to explain how another language could express concepts that we find troubling or awkward to express in English, or when the language embodied a different world view. ( )
1 vote TadAD | Feb 23, 2010 |
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Hey now, you got me by the tongue
I feel like, there's nowhere I belong.
               —David Gray, Faster, Sooner, Now

The dark soft languages are being silenced:
Mothertongue Mothertongue Mothertongue
falling one by one back into the moon.
              —Margaret Atwood, Marsh Languages

O felix peccatum Babel!
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Patrick's Language

An old man watches a milky ocean roll in to the shore. High above the waterline, two children are skipping barefoot along an otherwise empty beach, its contours defined and guareded by a pair of mangrove swamps. A long, low island nudges the western horizon. This could be an afternoon scene on almost any tropical coast: the heat rising off the sand, a hawk scouring the sky. In fact, the surf is brushing a remote edge of northern Australia—remote, that is, except to the old man's people, the Mati Ke, who may have lived in the area for tens of thousands of years.
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"In Spoken Here, Mark Abley journeys around the world seeking out languages in peril - Manx, Mohawk, Boro, Yiddish, and many more. 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 to wipe out 90 percent of languages by this century's end." "Abley encounters one of the last two speakers of an Australian language whose tribal taboos forbid them to talk to each other. He spotlights those who believe that violence is the only way to save their tongue. He meets a Yiddish novelist who writes for an audience she knows doesn't exist. He pays tribute to such strange tongues as the Amazonian language last spoken by a parrot, the Caucasian language with no vowels, and the South Asian language whose innumerable verbs include gobray (to fall in a well unknowingly) and onsra (to love for the last time)." "Each of the languages Abley spotlights, from the familiar to the foreign, exemplifies the various threats that endanger languages worldwide. But many also prove their resilience, thanks to the efforts of their determined speakers and such unlikely tools as soap operas and pop music. From the crusaders to the uncaring, Abley draws surprising insight from this centuries-old debate."--BOOK JACKET.

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