Few people know that nearly 100 native languages once spoken in what is now California are near extinction, or that most of Australia's 250 aboriginal languages have vanished. In fact, at least half of the world's languages may die out in the next century. What has happened to these voices? Should we be alarmed about the disappearance of linguistic diversity?
The authors of Vanishing Voices assert that this trend is far more than simply disturbing. Making explicit the link between language survival and environmental issues, they argue that the extinction of languages is part of the larger picture of near-total collapse of the worldwide ecosystem. Indeed, the authors contend that the struggle to preserve precious environmental resources-such as the rainforest-cannot be separated from the struggle to maintain diverse cultures, and that the causes of language death, like that of ecological destruction, lie at the intersection of ecology and politics.
And while Nettle and Romaine defend the world's endangered languages, they also pay homage to the last speakers of dying tongues, such as Red Thundercloud, a Native American in South Carolina, Ned Mandrell, with whom the Manx language passed away in 1974, and Arthur Bennett, an Australian, the last person to know more than a few words of Mbabaram.
In our languages lies the accumulated knowledge of humanity. Indeed, each language is a unique window on experience. Vanishing Voices is a call to preserve this resource, before it is too late.
Creating an explicit link between ecological and linguistic vitality, Nettle (Ph.D., anthropology, University Coll., London) and Romaine (English language, Oxford Univ.) persuasively present the scientific value of saving endangered languages. Anecdotes, statistics, and graphs help address significant assumptions about why languages die and how a few languages have achieved world dominance. The authors provide useful background information and tackle underlying issues, some of which spurred another recent publication, Stephen G. Alter's Darwinism and the Linguistic Image (Johns Hopkins Univ., 1999). Among other books that offer detailed examinations of threatened languages are Endangered Languages, edited by Lenora Grenoble and Lindsay Whaley (Cambridge Univ., 1998), and Robert M.W. Dixon's The Rise and Fall of Languages (Cambridge Univ., 1998). Highlighting the wealth of scientific knowledge encoded in threatened languages, the authors promote not only bi- or multilingualism but also the economic and ecological benefits of cooperating with endangered language speakers. Recommended for academic and large public libraries.--Marianne Orme, West Lafayette, IN Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\