Spoken Here : Travels among Threatened Languages

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  • Format: Hardcover
  • Copyright: 2003-08-01
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

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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. Abley meets the crusaders as well as the uncaring, all of whom offer surprising insight into this centuries-old debate. Spoken Here is a singular travelogue, a compelling case for linguistic diversity, and a treasure trove for anyone who loves any language.

Author Biography

Mark Abley, an award-winning journalist, writes for the Montreal Gazette, the Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. He speaks English, French, and a little Welsh. His previous book, Spoken Here, was named a Best Book of the Year by the San Francisco Chronicle and Discover magazine. He won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2005 for work on language change and the future.

Table of Contents

Patrick's Languagep. 1
Dreamers: Languages in Northern Australiap. 13
Constructing the Worldp. 43
Unseen and Unheard: Yuchip. 53
Dont Vori, Bi Khepip. 83
Leaving the Grave: Manxp. 95
The Verbs of Borop. 121
The Lion's Tongue: Provencalp. 128
Melting at the Edgesp. 156
The Words That Come Before All Else: Mohawkp. 163
Humboldt's Parrotp. 190
Ways of Escape: Yiddishp. 201
Revivalp. 229
The Iron of Language: Welshp. 240
The Face of All the Earthp. 272
Sourcesp. 283
Acknowledgmentsp. 299
Indexp. 303
Table of Contents provided by Ingram. All Rights Reserved.


1 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 guarded 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. One of the children pauses in her game. Among the fragments of driftwood and corrugated iron, the rusted fishing traps and crushed plastic bottles, she has found something different: a shell as long as her forearm. She looks up from the beach to the few scattered houses in the hamlet of Kuy. Then she calls to her grandmother, Mona, who is sitting as usual on a yellow foam mattress. Laid out on a verandah, the mattress gives a view of the sea. The child uses her grandmother's language, Murrinh-Patha. It's also her own, and the daily language of a few thousand other people in the region. Most of its speakers live an hour's rough ride away, in a town called Wadeye. The trip is possible only in a four-wheel-drive vehicle down a dirt trail that slithers inland through the silver-green bush, passing the corpse of a small airplane and fording the same creek twice before it links up with a gravel road that ends or begins in town. Somewhere along that trail, as you skirt the treacherous pools of deep red sand or disturb a loud gathering of cockatoos, you pass a border. The border is no less real for its lack of fences, checkpoints, and customs officers. It marks the ancient division between the Murrinh-Patha land that includes the town of Wadeye and the Mati Ke land that includes the small outstation here at Kuy. In Aboriginal Australia, land and language are intimately related. Traditionally, the continent was de- fined and divided not only by its hills, creeks, and water holes but also by its hundreds of languages. Wadeye grew up in the 1930s as a Catholic mission, and the Mati Ke were one of several peoples who moved off their land and switched over - out of a mixture of respect, convenience, and necessity - to a daily use of Murrinh-Patha. They also learned English, so as to comprehend the noise of authority. At first, nobody realized that the Mati Ke language was slipping away. From her home above a calm shore of the Timor Sea, Mona gives her granddaughter an encouraging shout. Then she turns to her husband, Patrick Nudjulu, to explain. Unless he is wearing his hearing aid, words are lost on Patrick. But as the old man of Kuy, he likes to know what's going on. Besides, this is his land. Its stories belong to him. Standing there on his verandah, his beard and flowing hair the color of the snow he has never seen, his skin as dark as wild grapes, Patrick has the gravitas of a biblical patriarch - a tall one, with a sly sense of humor. Some days he doesn't bother to put on a shirt. But if there's any chance that strangers might be present, he always wears long pants and shoes. That way, it won't be obvious that one of his legs is false - the aftermath of leprosy in his youth. A slight film over his eyes betrays the arrival of cataracts. But he can still see down to the beach; he can dream; he can remember. "I remember all," he says in English, his fourth or fifth language. "I was born in my own bush here. Therefore I can't forget." He sips from a tin mug of tea that Mona has brewed up on the open fire pit at the far en

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