Of some 6,000 languages that survive today, about half are likely to have disappeared within the course of this century. Some people may not consider this a problem given the dominance of English in world affairs, but it is becoming apparent that languages are as important a source of raw material and as much a part of biodiversity as the many species of plant and animal life that are threatened with extinction.
Languages should be seen as much a part of our natural heritage as plants with medicinal properties. Wild ginger may look nice on a supermarket shelf, for instance, but the term th'alátel , found in British Columbia, means "good for the heart".
The fate of languages is all too often indicative of what happens to the people who speak them. Spoken Here highlights the ill-treatment of communities across the world and (possibly worse) the maltreatment that may arise from clumsy, if well-intentioned, policies aimed at assimilating people in an alien dominant culture.
It is understandable, but perhaps ironic, that the result of creating a global village with more open borders and easier access to sophisticated forms of communication has been to make some people more aware of their local cultures. Their language acquires new importance as a means of maintaining their identity or regaining self-respect. This process is tracked on a large scale in cases as diverse as Quebec or Israel, and looked at in finer detail with the conservation or revival of Amerindian languages in North American suburbs.
The book draws on a range of contrasting languages and situations, including Yiddish, Manx and a variety of Aboriginal languages, all held together by Mark Abley's narrative. It is a travel book and reflects the strengths and weaknesses of the genre - highly readable but anecdotal, episodic but with a single running theme, illustrating the arguments put forward by authors such as David Crystal or Andrew Dalby. In places, the jaunty style palls and may irritate the more serious reader, but the chapter notes on sources go to show that the writing is based on a proper understanding of the subject and careful observation.
More than that, Abley's fascination with the subject and his sympathy for the human situations he encounters shines through. What are we to make of a language that includes a word such as gobray ("to fall into a well unknowingly") or gagrom ("to search for a thing underwater by trampling"), and what insights into the human processes of speech and language acquisition might we lose if thousands of languages simply fade away?
Solutions can be found: for example, the School of Oriental and African Studies in London has its own Endangered Languages Project, which aims to train people to document languages, create archives of material and encourage languages to survive.
Some of what Abley sees on his travels is reprehensible, some of it painful. But he sees enough positive aspects to provide hope that languages will come to be viewed as part of the diversity of this planet. In that respect the book offers a useful insight into a crucial topic, and is presented in a way that makes it accessible to the non-specialist reader.
Tim Connell is professor of languages for the professions, City University, London.
Spoken Here: Travels among Threatened Languages
Author - Mark Abley
Publisher - Heinemann
Pages - 320
Price - £14.99
ISBN - 0 618 23649 X