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Review of  When Languages Die

Reviewer: Lameen Souag
Book Title: When Languages Die
Book Author: K. David Harrison
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Issue Number: 18.2664

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AUTHOR: Harrison, K. David
TITLE: When Languages Die
SUBTITLE: The extinction of the world's languages and the erosion of human
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
YEAR: 2007

Lameen Souag, Department of Linguistics, School of Oriental and African Studies,
University of London

If you regard the lexicon as the least interesting part of a language, and
cultural differences as a distraction from linguistics, then _When Languages
Die_ provides reasons to reconsider; if you are already interested in semantics
and anthropological linguistics, it points to a variety of interesting topics,
including a number drawn from the author's own fieldwork with Turkic minority
languages of Siberia. This book is an introduction for the general reader to how
languages encode the environmental knowledge and cultural practices of their
speakers, and how language endangerment worldwide threatens this.

The first chapter, ''A World of Many (Fewer) Voices'', discusses linguistic
diversity, why so many languages are in danger of disappearing or have already
disappeared , and why it matters. To the latter question, he gives three
answers, expanded on throughout the book: languages encode valuable knowledge
about the natural world and how humans interact with it; when a language
disappears, a rich heritage of verbal arts goes with it; and every language
potentially casts light on human cognition, and tests claimed linguistic
universals. Aside from these, he points to the human tragedy of language
endangerment - children beaten for speaking their own languages, parents
regretting too late that their children don't speak their language - and the
ties between language endangerment and broader issues of colonialism and coercion.

The second, ''An Extinction of (Ideas about) Species'', addresses the ecological
knowledge embedded in human systems of naming and talking about living things.
He emphasizes that this is not just a matter of learning to distinguish
different species and inventing names for each. Rather, over generations a
language comes to incorporate valuable information about different species'
characteristics in its very vocabulary, and develops concise ways to package
important information about them, both aiding the transmission of this
information in a society without writing. It should be obvious to anyone who has
learned the technical vocabulary of (say) phonetics, or syntax, or computing,
that a concise, standardized way to refer to and differentiate entities commonly
encountered in a given field is essential for working in, or even thinking
clearly about, that field; while the particular names chosen may to some extent
be arbitrary, the organization of a technical vocabulary and the
differentiations it chooses to make are not. By that token, the tens of Tofa
words for different colors and ages of reindeer (e.g. _chary_ '5-year-old male
castrated rideable reindeer') that the author describes are not merely an
interesting fact about Tuvan vocabulary, but an important part of the technology
of living off reindeer herding. Likewise, an animal name, or its classification
in a folk taxonomy, may convey information about its habits or uses, not just
its appearance (let alone its deduced ancestry, a factor that in theory trumps
all others for taxonomists but is rarely of practical interest for others). Thus
the Wayampi classify six species of toucan and a hawk together as _tukãpewar_,
the toucan family, because the hawk eats the same food as the toucans - wild
fruits which are also edible to humans. One might imagine that such technical
vocabularies could readily be retained in the course of language shift; but in
reality, language shift is generally accompanied by significant lifestyle
changes, and these classification systems are even more endangered than the
languages that host them. Among the Bari, a people of the Venezuelan rainforest,
the loss of ethnobotanical knowledge was found to be about 40 to 60 percent in
just a single generation.

The next chapter, ''Many Moons Ago: Traditional Calendars and Time-Reckoning'',
describes some of the ''ecological calendars'' to be found in many parts of the
world, viewing them not as crude attempts to approximate the calculated
calendars developed in urban civilizations but as ingenious tools encapsulating
knowledge needed for survival. In these systems, a month may be not only named
for but defined by an observable annual event, such as the blooming of a flower
or the snow falling on the mountains. Knowing the months implies knowing an
event characteristic of each; defining at least one by its event allows the
lunar calendar to be re-synchronized with the solar one without any need for
calculations or day-counting. Shorter units of time, such as 'four days hence'
or 'the time it takes a kettle to boil', are also discussed.

Chapter 4, ''An Atlas in the Mind'', discusses the linguistic encoding of
geographical knowledge. Few skills can be more essential for a mobile group than
the ability to keep their bearings; and the author argues that language plays an
important role in this. Concepts which can optionally be encoded in English,
such as whether movement is uphill or downhill, are seen to be obligatorily
encoded in languages such as Lolovoli, where any kind of movement must be
specified as 'up' (i.e. hard to go, easy to come back), 'down' (vice versa) or
'across' (no difference in difficulty either direction). Within even a single
hut with a level floor, movements will be specified as 'up' or 'down' with
reference to the slope outside; and trans-island travel is 'up' or 'down'
depending on whether it goes against or with the prevailing winds. In many of
the languages discussed, place names are exceptionally numerous and are often
transparent, with anatomical metaphors or mythical significance making them more
memorable; equally important, geography is a regular topic of conversation.

''Silent Storytellers, Lost Legends'' takes a slightly different turn, looking at
oral narrative and how it differs from the written kind, including all sorts of
improvisations and gestures that are not captured by a transcription or a
publication. He examines several cases of verbal arts in practice, and an
indigenously developed orthography he came across in his own fieldwork.

In ''New Rice, Old Legends'', he moves to local biological knowledge and its
erosion under the pressure of international agricultural methods. While this
chapter is perhaps the least linguistic one in the book, he once again
emphasizes the diversification of semantic fields relevant to a traditional way
of life and their likely impoverishment as that way of life changes; in this
case, that semantic impoverishment corresponds to a genetic impoverishment, as
hundreds of local strains of rice or millet are replaced by a handful of major
types produced abroad.

''Endangered Number Systems'' goes beyond the usual discussion of different bases
to examine a significant part of the diversity of number systems across
languages and cultures, from body part counting systems that go beyond our
twenty digits to cover elbows and nostrils to languages that express integers
between the tens as motion towards the next ten, rather than using addition or
subtraction to reach the number from another ten. Inevitably, he briefly
addresses the Pirahã question, but more as part of a wide range of possibilities
than as a unique special case. He also looks at Greenberg's typological
universals of number systems, and a few exceptions to them, and notes that, with
borrowing or pattern copying particularly common in this domain, number systems
are in many cases even more endangered than the languages in which they are

The final chapter, ''Worlds within Words'', departs somewhat from the book's
overall theme of semantics to examine typological diversity in general. Even
here, semantics is never far away, with discussions on such issues as counter
and classifier systems and obligatorily encoded politeness systems; but a
variety of less semantic topics are rapidly touched on, from phonological
diversity and uses of reduplication to language change and the (so far
unanswerable) question of whether one language can be more complex than another.
He notes that without examining a variety of threatened languages we would never
even be likely to suspect that certain structures (be they syntactic,
phonological, or semantic; he gives examples of each) are possible in human
language. If we had no data on a handful of Carib languages with very few
speakers, for example, we would still be attempting to explain the imagined
impossibility of basic word orders in which the object precedes the subject.

Between each of these chapters is a brief case study recounting a personal
experience with speakers of some particular endangered language, illustrating
and bringing home the points in the previous chapter.

I found the book engaging and non-technical enough to arouse the interest of
non-linguists, but wide-ranging enough and well-sourced enough to appeal to
linguists as well. There are details that might be quibbled with, such as what
he acknowledges to be the inherently dubious efforts to count languages in the
first chapter; and to some linguists its extensive discussion of diversification
within semantic fields may seem more like anthropology than linguistics. But
overall, the book makes a good case that the study of vocabulary casts light on
both cognition and culture, and underlines the urgent need to document more
endangered languages better and to fix the social inequalities that usually play
a large role in making them endangered.

Lameen Souag is a doctoral student at SOAS (London). He is examining, and
seeking to explain differences in, the effects of long-term morphosyntactic
contact on two geographically isolated languages of the Sahara: Korandje, a
Songhay language spoken in the Algerian oasis of Tabelbala, and Siwi, a Berber
language spoken in the Egyptian oasis of Siwa. He will begin fieldwork in late
2007. He maintains a linguistics blog, Jabalal-Lughat (

Format: Hardback
ISBN: 0195181921
ISBN-13: 9780195181920
Pages: 304
Prices: U.S. $ 29.95