15 June, 2004Issue 3.3HistoryNorth AmericaTravel

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Stop / Arrêt

David Williams

Mark Abley
Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages
Heinemann, 2004
320 pages

Growing up among a conquered people gives one a feel for issues of linguistic anxiety. I remember the first ‘racial’ slurs I learned – ‘pepper’ meant a francophone (they prefer Pepsi to Coke), tête carrée an Anglo (they have squarer than average heads). I became concretely aware of the political manifestations of language difference when we got a new stop sign on our street corner. The old one looked like every other arresting red octagon in North America and abroad. The new one’s white lettering said: STOP/ARRÊT. Just the summer before I had been to France for the first time. The signs there said STOP. The people even said ‘stop’. What is more, whereas I was used to terrain de stationnement, gomme à macher, and fin-de-semaine, so-called French people referred to un parking, le chewing-gum, le week-end. So I learned the first rule of language politics – the more threatened you feel, the more stringently purist you tend to be. In 1988, the Quebec legislature passed a law banning all non-French outdoor commercial signs, allowing minority languages on indoor signs only if they were ‘less prominent’ than the state-sanctioned French. This led to the surreal situation of government ‘language police’ deploying to measure the relative point size of English lettering and searching high and low for illegal outdoor apostrophes. Eaton’s department store became Eaton; The Bay, La Baie. The sign at the end of my street has since changed to just ARRÊT, something I have yet to see in any other French-speaking country.

I’ve noticed this kind of sign game being played in many places. In the Highlands of Scotland and in parts of Ireland and Wales, road signs are helpfully bilingual despite local proficiency in English, as they are in Sardinia, where less-spoken Sardinian Catalan often marks streets along with dominant Italian. Though it’s hard to deny the concomitant commodification of local ‘flavour’, it’s nice to see the promotion of disfavoured languages met with economic improvement. Greater free time and mobility have made national cultures, however foreign, easily accessible. The more distinct a place, the more cachet it has, the more tourists it gets. We like seeing a bit of French Europe thrive in the heart of North America. In Wales, the decidedly drab little village of Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch still attracts busloads of tourists, just because its name is very long and very Welsh. On this evidence, it would appear that local culture is on the comeback, backed by political will and economic advantage against the homogeneity of globalisation .

Unfortunately, the renaissance of minority tongues is confined to a relatively small number of protected cultures in prosperous lands. For most of our recent history and in most of the world, politics and economics have been stacked heavily against threatened languages. Canadian writer Mark Abley’s linguistic travelogue, Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages visits some of our estimated 3,000 disappearing languages. Abley, whose affection for these languages effuses in every chapter, woos us to their cause with the charming peculiarities of their foreignness. There is, for instance, Karbadian, a language of central Asia which boasts 48 consonants but only between zero and two vowels (the exact number is, apparently, an issue liable to incite even the most mild-mannered linguist to fisticuffs). There are Marlda Kangka and Damin, secret-rite languages of northern Australia, which are taught to young men only after they have endured sequential and progressively excruciating penile procedures (Abley warns ‘don’t ask, you don’t want to know’, and having found out myself, I wish only to pass on his advice). Also on the verge of extinction in Australia is Mati Ke, an Aboriginal language with only two surviving speakers, a brother and sister. Because of cultural taboos against incest, they have not spoken to one another since puberty.

And then there are the verbs of Boro, also called Bodo, a Tibeto-Burman language spoken in northeastern India as well as parts of Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh: egthu: ‘to create a pinching sensation in the armpit’; gobray: ‘to fall in a well unknowingly’; onsay: ‘to pretend to love’; onsra: ‘to love for the last time’, or, differently intonated, ‘to arouse the female oracle for the last time’. In his chapter on Boro, Abley is at his passionate best, conveying all the quirky felicities of the language in what amounts to a stirring defence:

While I love the surprising verb dasa it means ‘not to place a fishing instrument’ – I accept, with some reluctance, that my own language might have little use for it. But onsay and onsra are a different story. Having met those words … how can I do without them? I covet them, just as I covet the verbs for expressing anger by a sidelong glance or for feeling partly bitter. They are more than just fresh sounds on the tongue; they are fresh thoughts in the mind.

Neither can the Boro do without their verbs, Abley argues, without substantial cultural and spiritual impoverishment. While recognising the economic pressures to adopt majority languages, Abley insists on the farther-reaching benefits of linguistic preservation: ‘By continuing to speak their language, the Boro won’t get rid of their debts, save their forests, or halt the influx of outside settlers. But they may be a good deal more likely to withstand the corrosive despair that accompanies these pressures, avoiding the self-hatred that come when a culture implodes or disintegrates’.

If Abley’s lay-sociology rings true, his lay-linguistics finds him on much less firm ground. In a chapter entitled ‘Constructing the World’, Abley goes to bat for what has come to be called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Many popular conceptions of language difference depend on strong or weak versions of Sapir-Whorf, categorised as linguistic determinism and linguistic relativity respectively, including for instance Orwell’s idea of Newspeak and its modern-day incarnation of ‘political correctness’, as well as the claim that the syntactic difficulty of counter-factual statements in Chinese is either indicative of or responsible for an ingrained complacency with the status quo. In 1940 Whorf famously proposed that the number and variety of ‘Eskimo’ words for snow showed how differently they perceived their surroundings. For Abley, linguistic determinism/relativity means that the loss of a language represents more than the loss of ‘just another way of saying it’. It is the disappearance of a unique and irrecoverable understanding of the ‘real’.

Abley knows that this position puts him squarely in the doghouse with most modern linguists, who for more than 40 years have debunked Sapir-Whorf related claims, preferring instead Noam Chomsky’s revolutionary precept that every concept is expressible in every language. Abley says that onsay and onsra are ‘more than just fresh sounds on the tongue; they are fresh thoughts in the mind’, but this is almost certainly untrue. While raising the female oracle for the last time might be somewhat original, to ‘pretend to love’ is surely as common a practice among English-speakers as it is among the Boro. To ‘love for the last time’, though it sounds too romantic to be English, is at least well-known enough in our language to be the title of a ballad by Carole King. For Chomskians, it means little that a concept is expressed in one word or a string of words. As in the case of qaniit, the West Greenlandic Inuit word for ‘snow in air/falling’, it is not the idea that is especially foreign, only its verbal manifestation. It happens that Canadian and some American English dialects also have a one-word near-equivalent of qaniit—it’s ‘flurries’—but that’s no evidence that we understand the falling of snow any differently from anyone who has seen snow fall.

It’s too bad that Abley chooses to base a large part of his defence of languages on Sapir-Whorf derived assertions, even if these are presented in their least radical incarnations and with the best intentions. In addition to provoking the contempt of linguists (whom he accuses in turn of ‘engaging in arcane analysis of the structural underpinnings of speech’) Abley inadvertently propagates misconceptions which have caused some harm. For instance, his frequent reference to the way Mohawk and some other First Nations1 languages express the passage of time unintentionally plays into a long-held prejudice against First Nations peoples that they have an inborn incapacity for being on time, holding down a job for any period of time, and generally contributing to a time-structured, nine-to-five society. It’s a pity, too, because Abley’s case is just as convincing without reference to worldviews and ‘systems of thought’. Beyond the sociological point that the preservation of cultural and generational ties through a common local language is almost always salutary, there is a purely √¶sthetic point to be made. Anyone who has heard the Ohen:ton Karihwatehkwen recited before a Mohawk gathering, or has listened to Scottish Gaelic sean nos, or has heard, in their travels or on the radio, the song and poetry of a foreign tongue, knows this: that all human language is beautiful and valuable, that losing one impoverishes tremendously not only the culture to which it belongs but the entirety of the polyglottic Babeldom that is humanity.

David Williams is a DPhil candidate at Balliol College, Oxford, where he is writing on 20th Century poetics and ethics. He is from Montreal.


  1. ‘First Nations’ is current usage in Canada for ‘Indian’, used collectively to include all aboriginal nations (‘tribes’), but not usually including Inuit or Métis people.