Friday, December 04, 2009

On the Death and Life of Languages

By Claude Hagege
Yale University Press 334 pages

An average of 25 human languages disappear each year. Of the unknown number of languages that once existed, only five thousand remain, and half of them may be gone by the end of the century. That may even be a conservative guess.

French linguist Claude Hagege looks at the history of languages and their relationship to cultures. When cultures disappear, so do their languages, and that's been true in Europe as well as in Africa and North America, where the death of thousands of languages embedded in Native American cultures continues today, though there are concerted efforts to preserve and revive their use.

This is a scholarly, detailed and nuanced view of the subject that's of more than historical relevance. Hagege's last chapter involves the threat to national languages by the Internet. Are languages destined to die when cultural boundaries break and become part of larger cultures? Should this even be mourned, or are there valuable points of view embedded in languages that larger societies need? There are writers on Native American languages who make convincing cases that this is true. Though this book may be of primary interest to linguistic scholars and social historians, it does raise larger questions and contributes a knowledge base to begin to address them.

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