Play the lan­guage games

National Post (Latest Edition) - - BOOKS & WRITERS - Philip Marc­hand

There is great pathos when the last speaker of a

lan­guage dies

Lingo: A Lan­guage spot­ters guide to Europe Gas­ton Dor­ren Grove/At­lantic 320 pp; $35

Mar­shall McLuhan once re­marked that a sin­gle word was more in­ter­est­ing than the en­tire NASA space pro­gram. En­gi­neers and physi­cists would doubt­less ob­ject, but an­other sage, Ralph Waldo Emer­son, who de­clared that a word was a fos­sil poem, might understand. A lan­guage is a work of art, a peo­ple’s art, cre­ated by the com­mon man and the com­mon woman. “Or­di­nary Lon­don slang is full of witty things said by no­body in par­tic­u­lar,” com­mented G. K. Ch­ester­ton. No­body in par­tic­u­lar is re­spon­si­ble for in­spired metaphors such as the ex­pres­sion, “paint the town red.” You can say that lan­guage wrote that fig­ure of speech — and deep mean­ing at­taches it­self to it. “Red is the most joy­ful and dread­ful thing in the phys­i­cal uni­verse,” Ch­ester­ton wrote. “It is the fiercest note, it is the high­est light, it is the place where the walls of this world of ours wear thinnest and some­thing be­yond burns through.”

This is why there is great pathos when the last speaker of a lan­guage dies. Such an event is the kind of story recorded by lin­guist Gas­ton Dor­ren in his book Lingo: Around Europe in Sixty Lan­guages, a se­ries of “short por­traits” of en­tire lan­guages, as well as “in­di­vid­ual quirks and per­son­al­i­ties” con­nected with lan­guage. It was more than an in­di­vid­ual quirk when a man named Tuone Udaina in­ad­ver­tently stepped on a land­mine in 1898. The re­sult­ing explosion re­moved from the planet the last man to speak Dal­ma­tian, a lan­guage de­vel­oped out of Latin, east of the Adri­atic Sea. “Even at its height,” Dor­ren writes, “Dal­ma­tian may well have had only 50,000 speak­ers. Hardly any texts have been pre­served, pre­sum­ably be­cause hardly any were writ­ten.” By the 19th cen­tury, Dor­ren ob­serves, “It had been re­duced to a mi­nor­ity lan­guage on just one is­land, known as Krk in Croa­t­ian and Vikla in Dal­ma­tian.”

Very sad, but not un­com­mon. “It is es­ti­mated that some 500 lan­guages world­wide are spo­ken by fewer than 100 peo­ple,” Dor­ren writes. “Around 50 lan­guages are spo­ken by just a sin­gle in­di­vid­ual. In 2013 the last na­tive speaker of Livo­nian died in Latvia. In 2012 the last speaker of the Cro­marty di­alect in Scot­land breathed his last.”

Dor­ren hope­fully notes that “small lan­guages are not nec­es­sar­ily doomed ... Even death is not the last word — two Celtic lan­guages (Cor­nish and Manx) have been raised from the grave.” The most noted Euro­pean lan­guage to be re­sus­ci­tated is Gaelic. Ir­ish politi­cians through­out the 20th cen­tury strove might- ily to nur­ture the lan­guage, ini­tially by es­tab­lish­ing a re­gion known as the Gaeltacht in a re­mote western part of the is­land where na­tive Gaelic speak­ers were con­cen­trated. But the spirit of moder­nity would not be de­nied — English speak­ers in­vaded the area for real es­tate bar­gains, Gaelic speak­ers left for bet­ter jobs. By the early 1970s, it seemed the project was doomed and the lan­guage headed to­ward ex­tinc­tion.

What saved the lan­guage was a grass­roots move­ment to make the whole of Ire­land bilin­gual, a move­ment led by highly ed­u­cated, ur­ban, sec­ond- lan­guage speak­ers. It suc­ceeded. The only prob­lem was that th­ese newly bilin­gual con­verts tended to speak lousy Gaelic. They called it Ir­ish pid­gin, and it is not what any­body had in mind. But then no lin­guis­tic tri­umph is un­al­loyed. Cana­di­ans can understand that.

One lan­guage rates men­tion as a shaper of na­tional iden­tity — Ice­landic. It has been spo­ken for cen­turies with re­mark­ably small cor­rup­tion — or change, if you will. In the Mid­dle Ages, it was the lan­guage used by the au­thors of the prose nar­ra­tives known as the sagas, a body of lit­er­a­ture that is one of the mon­u­ments of Euro­pean lit­er­ary cul­ture. What amazes Dor­ren, and all other read­ers of the sagas, is that they can be read with en­joy­ment and rel­a­tive ease by present- day Ice­landers. The lan­guage has re­mained that stable.

The rea­sons are mul­ti­ple. As Dor­ren notes, Ice­land is ex­tremely iso­lated from other pop­u­la­tion cen­tres. But he points out that lan­guage is prone to change even with­out out­side in­flu­ence. Some­thing else is re­quired to main­tain lin­guis­tic sta­bil­ity. “What is re­quired in par­tic­u­lar,” Dor­ren states, “is that many of the peo­ple known to any one speaker should also know each other, as this main­tains a con­sen­sus on lin­guis­tic norms. Ice­landic so­ci­ety be­fore the nine­teenth cen­tury, with fewer than 50,000 peo­ple, may have been small enough to al­low such close-knit net­works.”

Now we turn to English. Along with Chi­nese, it is the dom­i­nant lan­guage of the planet. Is it wor­thy to bear such weight? The hor­rors of English spell­ing and pro­nun­ci­a­tion are well known — yet the lan­guage is said to be “learn­er­friendly” and Dor­reen agrees. “Most lan­guages are sad­dled with a lot of gram­mat­i­cal stuff that English is spared,” he writes. ( He par­tic­u­larly hates cases, which he calls “nasty lit­tle bug­gers.”) The El­iz­a­bethan poet Philip Sid­ney, writ­ing at the dawn of the lan­guage, also praised such sim­plic­ity. “Gram­mar it might have but ( English) needs it not; be­ing so easy of it­self, and so void of those cum­ber­some dif­fer­ence of cases, gen­ders, moods, and tenses, which I think was a piece of the Tower of Ba­bel’s curse.”

Dor­ren’s book is so much fun a reader might feel that half of Ba­bel’s curse has al­ready been lifted.

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