Time and again in the fifteen chapters of Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages, we are reminded of the idea that "Unless it's written down, a language is nothing more than mouthfuls (or handfuls) of air…its patterns of sound exist only as long as people use them." Hardly surprising then, that the most successful aspect of Mark Abley's mix of scholarship and storytelling is the portrayal of the many widely dispersed people he interviews on the states of their besieged, yet sometimes amazingly resilient languages. As well, wearing his travel writer's hat, Abley does a fine job of bringing the various settings vividly to life, further securing our attention.
"In the end, should anybody care that thousands of languages are at risk?" he asks early in the book. In his ensuing encounters with cultures and languages as diverse as Provençal, Yiddish, Mati Ke, and Boro, Abley makes us answer "yes" because he, and we, come to care particularly about the people whose commitment and efforts keep their beloved tongues from extinction.
A series of premises determine the ports of call for Abley's odyssey. Key to the argument for preserving languages, he suggests, is that they can help to ensure cultural identity and strengthen the ability to resist "the onslaughts of modernity." The sad chapters on the extinct South American Atures and the near-dead Aboriginal Mati Ke culture and dialect notwithstanding, the surprising revitalizations of Manx and Faroese (island descendants of Gaelic and Old Norse respectively) provide credibility for this idea. Other absorbing chapters on, for example Welsh, Hebrew, Yiddish, Mohawk, and related indigenous languages support another premise Abley explores in depth: shared language is as vital to emotional identity and feelings of self-worth as it is to cultural identity and survival.
Moreover, Abley shows that peoples must commit themselves not only to using their threatened languages but also to deploying modern technologies to do so. Radio broadcasts in Mohawk from southern Ontario's CKRZ and in Welsh from station Sianel Pedwar Cymru are popular amongst their listeners, providing inspiration as well as an effective means of dissemination. However, the increasing use of western Australia's modern Kriol (a type of Creole) is effectively burying traditional aboriginal languages; Inuit culture and languages are being eroded by English television. The conclusion? Languages that are flexible will survive; those that are not probably won't.
Finally, Abley confronts the widely held perception that the juggernaut of English will roll on inexorably, eventually demolishing a shrinking body of languages. The subjects of his interviews eloquently tell him this need not be so.
Devotion, determination, pride and sheer "bloody-mindedness" characterize these people, living and dead. We meet, among others, Jean-Claude Roux and Patric Choffrut, whose passionate, conflicting defenses of the ancient Provençal tongue suggest they might unwittingly oversee its death rather than ensure its survival; Chava Rosenfarb, Peysach Fiszman, and Ruth Wisse, fighting their various fights for Yiddish; visionary (read possessed) Eliezar Perelman, who single-handedly transformed exclusively religious Hebrew into the vernacular Hebrew of present-day Israel; and Phil Gawne and Leslie Quirk, intractable champions of Manx. Their stories and personalities make the book's most compelling, convincing arguments for the protection of threatened languages, whatever the odds.
Despite Abley's sometimes defensive tone, (after all, his theses are not new), his too-frequent interruption of narrative flow with indigestible chunks of linguistic exposition, and his annoying habit of deflecting attention from his subjects to himself, Spoken Here is a thorough and absorbing if somewhat melancholy exploration of the pressures on minority languages. Above all, though, it is a highly satisfying introduction to the people who fiercely speak up for their traditional tongues.
Jill Rollins teaches senior English at Lower Canada College.