Review of Spoken Here - Travels Among Threatened Languages by Mark Abley



For several years, writer Mark Abley spent his time researching and living among the speakers of some of the worlds most endangered languages trying to understand why and how languages disappear through the stories of the people who speak them. This turned into an adventure that spanned cultures, countries and even continents, sending him to places as familiar as Montreal, New York City and southern France but also to forgotten towns and reservations and even to the edges of civilization in the Australian outback.

There he met with the speakers of languages that many, if not most, have never even heard of or imagined being spoken by anyone. He documented his encounters with the speakers of Manx, Yuchi, Provençal, Yiddish, Mohawk and other languages around the world as they struggle to preserve, reclaim or revive their single most identifiable cultural identity - their language.

Spoken Here - Travels Among Threatened Languages is largely a travelogue with a healthy dose of sociology, but there is, thankfully, not much linguistics. It's not needed here. The people he speaks with all tell the real story of their language through their lives and actions.

Abley doesn't make the mistake of just researching from afar, getting a birds-eye view of a language and dryly telling us why it would be bad if a language dies. He gets a real-life, fly-on-the-wall view of a living language, or in some cases a dying language, uttering its very last words. He shows us why it's bad as we see it through the eyes of the last speakers.

And therein lies the real story as Mark Abley opens the book with his time in Australia among the speakers of Mati Ke, Murrinh-Patha and Tiwi. With just a handful of fluent speakers left (not quite full with a recent count of 3), Mati Ke is on the edge of disappearing forever.

The language isn't passed on to the next generation as the youngsters choose English for its many attractions, or Murrinh-Patha, another aboriginal language and local lingua franca that will too likely become endangered. It's an all-too-common theme.

The aboriginal community is often powerless to stop the demise of so many of their languages and the European Australian community are little help as they are often ignorant or indifferent to the plight of the aborigines.

Even if they wanted to save Mati Ke, or any other language, the stage is already set. Of the 3 remaining speakers, two are brother and sister. According to their own culture it is forbidden for brother and sister to speak with each other after puberty. Abley writes -

"They will never forage for missing words, never share their memories of childhood; any such conversation would be taboo. They must not even pronounce each others name. When they die, the soul of a language will die with them."

Although there are many reasons why languages die, the one nearly omnipresent culprit is English - the 'killer language.'

"When it comes to science and business, technology and entertainment, politics and engineering, the dominance of English is incontestable. It is the common idiom of the worlds elite, the repository of global ambition," says Abley.

English creeps into French, Russian, German and other major world languages, exasperating purists. It forces millions of Chinese, Malaysians, Kenyans and Indonesians to learn it in order to compete or even participate on the world stage.

Furthermore, English is chosen as a common language in such disparate places as Scandinavia, Zaire and East Timor. If even French, Russian, and Chinese have trouble staving off English, what of a Manx, Mohawk or Mati Ke?

Abley discovers that outside influences like English and globalization aren't the only problem. Sometimes the danger comes from within. Politics can rear its ugly head, or differences of opinion within their own community often hinder efforts to keep their language from waning further. Such is the case with Yiddish and Provençal.

Each language has a different history, a different struggle. Through his travels and his research, Abley touches on the plight of many languages. He explores some in depth, while just touching on the situation of numerous others, from Cree to Micmac, Afrikaans to Lokele, Inuktitut to Boro. Languages living and languages that are no more. He finds the real stories in the people living these languages, those trying to preserve them and those resigned to their demise.

It's not all bad news. Abley finds hope in many of these stories. The independence of Faroese and Basque, the language nests of Maori and the revival of Hebrew are inspirational to those trying to revive Manx or improve the fragile health of Mohawk and Yuchi. And he ends on a good note. He devotes a final chapter to Welsh, one of the more inspiring success stories among threatened languages of the world.

While not only writing a book on the subject of endangered languages, increasing awareness of the crisis for us as readers and interested world citizens, Mark Abley has made the subject personal. As someone of Welsh ancestry, he has begun to learn Welsh himself, contributing to the revival of an endangered language in the most personal way possible.


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"A minority language can quickly come to seem a hobby for the old - a quaint refuge from ambition, knowledge, progress. A minority language always depends on popular will. It dies as its voices fade in the midst of Palm Pilots, cell phones and Walkmans. It dies as its remaining speakers find they have less and less to talk about."

- Mark Abley