National Post (Latest Edition)

Play the language games

- 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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