Vanishing Voices

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His offhand comment intrigued me. Having been involved with linguistics and lexicography since the late 1980s, I have long been aware of the notion of language death. At that dinner, it suddenly hit me--news outlets and advocacy groups keep information about the destruction of the rain forest or the extinction of plants and animals in view--most Americans are at least on some level aware of such destruction. The issue of language extinction, however, is completely off most people's radar screens. Suddenly, the review seemed even more urgent, because Vanishing Voices is a work that deserves the attention of the widest audience possible. The grim statistic is, as the authors Daniel Nettle and Suzanne Romaine explain early on, that almost half of the world's known languages have disappeared in the last 500 years, and the process has greatly accelerated in the last 200 years.

Nettle and Romaine provide a compelling look at the ways in which languages are rapidly disappearing from the face of the earth, at the factors which hasten the demise of endangered languages, and at the ways people, government, and organizations have been attempting to minimize the damage and loss. As they point out in the first chapter, in the area that the United States now encompasses, over 300 languages were spoken at the time of Columbus' journey in 1492; only 175 are spoken today--most of which are teetering on the edge of extinction. Only six (including Navajo, for example), are spoken by more than 100,000 people. This pattern of depletion is evident throughout the world, much of which has a far higher density of languages than existed in the States. (Papua New Guinea, for example, is home to over 860 languages.)

Vanishing Voices has eight chapters. The first, entitled "Where Have All the Languages Gone?", makes the extinction of language personal. The authors sketch brief biographies of the last person (photographs often are included) known to speak particular languages--so with...
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