Three books on language

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Sunday, October 17, 2010

Environmentalists are alarmed by the rapid decline of biodiversity over the last century, with species becoming extinct at a rate that outpaces science's ability to discover, let alone study, them. The same is true of languages the world over. A 2007 study by the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages painted a dire picture, identifying five "hotspots" (eastern Siberia, northern Australia, central South America, Oklahoma and the U.S. Pacific Northwest) where languages are vanishing at a pace that outstrips that of species extinction. So what's to blame? Colonialism, technology, industrialization, the (gulp) English language itself? All of them, actually.

1 The Last Speakers: The Quest to Save the World's Most Endangered Languages, by K. David Harrison (National Geographic, $27). A linguist at Swarthmore College, K. David Harrison helped conduct that 2007 survey. This chronicle is as much an homage to noble elders who often struggle to surmount indifference in their own communities as it is an op-ed by the author, who sounds the alarm among a skeptical public, and even other scientists, about the incalculable loss posed by a language's extinction.

2 The English Is Coming! How One Language is Sweeping the World, by Leslie Dunton-Downer (Touchstone, $24). Fascinated since childhood by words (especially compound ones), the author aims to decipher something much more complex: the entire English language. Today, with more nonnative speakers than native ones, English has become the world's lingua franca, the preferred choice in entertainment, science, business and (much to the chagrin of the French) diplomacy. We're given a tour of English's remarkable rise from its Anglo-Saxon roots through the Renaissance (and all the words Shakespeare added to the lexicon) to Modern English and the 21st century's texting variety. Chockablock with facts, figures and interesting tidbits, this is no stodgy history lesson.

3 Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages, by Guy Deutscher (Metropolitan, $28). The thrust of this title, that language does indeed mirror culture, is one of the arguments that linguist Harrison makes for preserving language diversity. Guy Deutscher confidently asserts that a language influences how its users perceive the world. The book is a thrilling and challenging ride, and in the end you may find yourself agreeing with Frenchman √Čtienne de Condillac that "each language expresses the character of the people who speak it."

-- Christopher Schoppa


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