Tuesday, 3 April 2018
Language in Danger by Andrew Dalby
This is a fascinating look at the patterns of language decline in the world. There is some fascinating historical analysis of how the spread of Latin and Greek in the ancient world lead to the extinction of the then indigenous languages of large areas of Europe, the Middle East and north Africa. This is then compared to the way in which English has in more recent years become a global language and how this affects other languages. How is the prevalence of English as a global second language affecting other languages? It's clear that English words are making their way more and more into the vocabulary of many other languages, though I'm less convinced that familiarity with English is necessarily changing the structure of other languages. I certainly notice if I (try to) read an old book in German or Italian I am more likely to give up on it than a modern book but that feels to me a result of modern informality and story telling styles that seem to me not necessarily a direct result of the influence of English. This is just one of the many fascinating elements of this book.
The most interesting element of the book from the point of view of this blog is what it says about the links between language, culture and knowledge about the natural world. The author gives examples of how local dialects of English have unique words that relate to their local environment (words that have often been borrowed from the local (often dying) indigenous languages. These words sometimes end up being the only remaining traces of those indigenous languages. Also fascinating is the attempt to trace the history of certain common words relating to the natural world - words such as apple (afal in Welsh, a Celtic language) seem to have a very ancient origin, speaking in part to the vital importance our ancestors recognised in the natural world.
The book also traces how people living in different environments have languages that reflect those environments and perhaps therefore offer a different world view. (This is incidentally, discussed in relation to attitudes to climate change, in this recent article).
It may be tempting for some people to shrug their shoulders and say 'so what?' at the thought of languages disappearing. However, as languages disappear, so do specific banks of knowledge, which offer insights into not only the natural world itself but into medicinal applications for plants. Taking as an example this quote from the book:
'Ethnobotanists looking for possible new sources of medicinal drugs have found that they need to be selective: they need peoples who have been resident in the same region for many generations......The Polynesians have had 1,500 years .....time to test and prove a hundred odd medicinal plants, far more than the Europeans of New Zealand or Hawaii. There's no magic about it, it takes a long long time for a reasonable proportion of plants to be tested....'
Language in Danger by Andrew Dalby, published by Allen Lane