Tongue Tied


Ever feel like a schmuck for not schmoozing with your bubbe in her mama-loshen? You’re not alone. “On every inhabited continent, languages keep falling silent,” as native speakers die and their descendants inherit English from missionaries, invaders, televisions, etc. Canadian journalist Mark Abley trekked from Australia to the American Plains, talking to elders whose words are indecipherable to most and, in rare cases, to educators who are trying to resuscitate dwindling dialects before it’s too late. According to Abley, “modern English is the Wal-Mart of languages: convenient, huge, hard to avoid, superficially friendly, and devouring all rivals in its eagerness to expand.”

The book is at once a plea for more conscientious diversity and an admonition that the West’s influence may already have metastasized beyond repair. What Abley lacks in formal linguistic training, he makes up for with human portraits, historical context, and statistics. Over the next century, he cautions, 90 percent of the approximately 6,000 languages spoken today may turn to whispers, and ultimately, mere entries in linguistic texts. Still, Abley remains optimistic: “The purists, the visiting linguists, the reference books: All of them are wrong. On a global level the triumph of English may seem unstoppable, but on a local level you can find innumerable tales of a bullheaded refusal to submit.”