a word before dying

November 29, 2010 § Leave a comment

Nicholas Evan’s work on endangered languages, Dying Words (2010) fittingly and yet disconcertingly starts with a funeral. One gets an inkling of what it is like to bury a last speaker, a remember, or the sorrow felt by a family, a community – both including the researcher. But this book is not sorrowful. Nor is it simply an impassioned plea for the preservation of language. It is a detailed, novice reader-friendly account of what the inclusion of these faint and faltering voices can tell us about human society, the human mind and something of a global cultural history.
Drawing on research in different fields and different parts of the globe Evans shows us that without the contributions of these ‘lesser known’ languages we would not know what languages can be or what (in a Whorfian-ish way) they can do to us. He draws on both some well-known examples and some striking new research. Of particular interest (to me) was the account of work on deciphering the Olmec script. Having followed the recent flurry of activity with Mayan, it was great to see attention turned to the language of the possible ur-culture of Meso-America using the same techniques as used with the later culture, finding reflexes for Olmec words in the Mixe-Zoquean languages still spoken in discontinuous geographies in the region of Southern Mexico. The decipherment proposed by Juteson and Kaufman in the 1990s (see a comprehensive 2001 account here) was controversial among Meso-american epigraphers and linguists, particularly among the Mayanist crowd.  However, given the paucity of texts they had to work with compared to the relatively vast Mayan corpus, the work is particularly impressive.

Another outstanding aspect of the book is the reconsideration of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, one that has returned to the fore of linguistic debate thanks to Deutschers book. What I like about Evan’s illsutration of the links between language, cognition  and culture is the use of short but well contained accounts of experimental work in direction marking as well as making the lived experience of geographic orientated cultures particularly in Australian Aboriginal languages come to life. Also using his own work with Karyadild, from the Northern Territory, he shows us the elegant word-formation available in that language to create direction terms: riya– ‘east’,  rilumbanda – ‘easterner’, riinmali – ‘hey you coming from the east’,  riluyrayaanda – ‘previous night’s camp in the east’,  ringurrnga – ‘east across a greogpraphical discontinuity’.

Tthe impressive array of topics and the illustration of them with narratives and easy to follow examples from all conrers of the globe, slipping in a bit of linguistics metalanguage here and there, makes this a page turner. One charge leveled at the language endangerment movement is that linguists are interested in saving languages for selfish reasons. This volume puts that argument to bed with its detailed account of what we all can learn about our past, our capacity for language and not least the personal commitment of the author with communities with whom he has sustained and multilevel engagements with.

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