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Bidding a sad adieu to a few thousand languages

August 24, 2003|Christopher Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

Spoken HereSpoken Here

Travels Among Threatened Languages

Mark Abley

Houghton Mifflin: 320 pp., $25

In remote northern Australia lies a coastal settlement called Wadeye. And near the shore of Wadeye lives an old aboriginal man named Patrick Nudjulu, who endures life with a hearing aid, a prosthetic leg and the knowledge that his native language, Mati Ke, soon will die, perhaps when he does.

As many as half of this planet's estimated 6,000 languages are expected to become obsolete in the next 100 years. As other aboriginal languages and English have crept into Wadeye's far-flung corner of the island, author Mark Abley explains, only two of Nudjulu's kin and neighbors have held on to substantial knowledge of their old tongue. One of them is his sister, Agatha, a fact that might seem an encouraging sign, especially if they could team up to teach someone younger. But in Nudjulu's culture, for reasons not given by the author, brothers and sisters are forbidden to communicate, or even say each other's names, after puberty. Patrick and Agatha honor that taboo.

"When they die," writes Abley, "the soul of a language will die with them."

That sibling tale leads off "Spoken Here" and offers a telling hint of what lies ahead: a provocative book that travels from Australia to Oklahoma to Wales, among other places; juggles weighty ideas and verbal oddities; advances at a stately pace; yet insists on keeping people center stage and verbiage as plain as possible.

Abley, a journalist, probes linguistic politics in the south of France. He tells of the South American language whose last speaker was apparently a parrot. He outlines the resurgence of Welsh and the struggle to sustain its Celtic relative, Manx, on the Isle of Man. And he explains why Hebrew prevailed over Yiddish as the dominant language of Israel.

Languages, Abley writes, "are social creations, constantly being tested and renewed in the mouths of their speakers. They require use, not just study. You can no more restore a vanished language from a scholarly monograph and a software program than you can restore a population of cheetah from a vial of frozen sperm and a National Geographic film."

We glimpse examples of what language and culture mean to each other, and we consider the idea that, beyond offering a different word for everything, language can offer a different way of understanding the world.

Sometimes the author talks to professors, sometimes to children, sometimes (even though he aims to steer clear of politics) to cultural crusaders for whom half-forgotten words stand for something vast and invaluable. Knowing that the author comes from eastern Canada, one expects a detailed explication of the French-English battles in Quebec, and clearly Abley has thought about them. But he mentions that skirmishing only in the course of pursuing lesser-known tongues, and I was glad for that.

I was glad, too, for the simple joy of knowing that "kangaroo" comes from one aboriginal Australian language, while "koala," "dingo" and "boomerang" come from another. Also: In the northeastern Indian tongue of Boro (which endures despite "aggressive Sanskritization"), onsra means "to love for the last time." In the Lokele language of the eastern Congo, liala is a garbage dump. And in the Inuktitut language of arctic Canada, utsimavaa means "he or she knows something from experience."

This is not a travel writer who has concocted a half-serious mission as an excuse for encountering colorful characters; this is a writer who loves words and especially loves those with the least time to live.

One of Abley's greatest assets is his amateur status: He is first a journalist, innocent of any scholarly credentials in linguistics. As a result, he rarely lets linguists' jargon into his text (except occasionally to poke fun at how uncommunicative it can be), and he paints pictures in conversational, sometimes playful, language.

Every once in a while he gets a little carried away with the playfulness; there are more Yiddish terms and self-consciously comic phrasings tucked into the chapter on Yiddish than I needed. But this is a flaw I'll happily choose over the prospect of a desiccated discussion of bilabial fricatives.


Ready to RollReady to Roll

A Celebration of the Classic American Travel Trailer

Arrol Gellner and Douglas Keister

Viking Studio: 192 pp., $32.95 paper

Streamlined fun on the open road

The Airstream is just the beginning. As this illustration-rich, fact-laden volume makes clear, the world of the travel trailer embraces far more than those shiny, curvy shapes seen in the slower lanes of the freeway from time to time.

Focusing on models of the 1930s, '40s and '50s, this book (in stores Sept. 29) traces the American infatuation with the idea of a home on wheels, and it wallows happily in kitsch. The acknowledgment photos in back -- a series of environmental shots of enthusiasts and their trailers -- are nearly worth the price by themselves.


California Coastal Access GuideCalifornia Coastal Access Guide

California Coastal Commission

University of California Press:

304 pp., $22.50

No-nonsense maps to beach frolics

Now forget kitsch and wit and color photography (except for the cover), and don't expect details on restaurants and hotels. This guide is really a government reference work, but serious beachgoers will want it. It covers 1,100 miles of the California coast with maps (127 of them), black-and-white photos and details of access, amenities and natural resources. This is the sixth edition since the Coastal Commission released its first in 1981.

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