Speak: A Short History of Languages

by Tore Janson
ISBN: 0198299788

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A Review of: Speak: A Short History of Languages
by A. J. Levin

The Swedish playwright August Strindberg, echoing Voltaire, wrote that the purpose of language is concealment, not exchange of information. But Swedish Academic Tore Janson reveals language in this book, Speak, written for non-linguists-how and why language has developed and diverged, and how language has shaped us, as much as we have shaped it. Rather than discussing the more technical aspects of speech, writing and thought, Janson examines the connection of language to politics, poetry, law, religion and economics. The reader will find answers to such questions as: What was early language like? Why did it form at all, and how? Why do languages spread and change, flourish or disappear?
Janson cites as examples Egyptian, Ancient Greek, Bantu languages, Creoles and Pidgins, Afrikaans, and Norwegian (of which there are actually two forms, Bokml and Nynorsk). There are rather large sections on Latin and its gradual slide into Italian and French, among other tongues. Almost half of the book is devoted to the English language, not only to demonstrating that it's the predominant lingua franca of our time, but also to an examination of its origin. Though the author is a Swede, his interest is somewhat understandable. This book is written in English and produced by an English publisher, and English seems set to dominate the world.
Some of the most interesting sections deal with the question of how to identify certain languages. The very identity of a language can be highly politicized. Thus, while Norwegian and Danish may be mutually intelligible, or Irish and Scots Gaelic, or Bosnian and Croatian, there are historic, political, geographical and frequently religious reasons for considering them as different languages. There are succinct chapters on the roles of agriculture, war, and isolation in the morphing of languages. Janson also looks at how written language cemented the identity of a spoken tongue. The final chapter is devoted to predictions: Will a seemingly stable tongue such as Dutch survive long into this new century, and what, if the human race is still around, will our descendants speak 200, 2000, and 2,000,000 years from now (it won't be English speculates Janson).
The brevity of the book undermines the endeavor somewhat. Janson promises to explain the Great Vowel Shift that English underwent, yet he never really does. The book's size sometimes forces Janson to oversimplify, or leaves him insufficient room to defend a tenuous argument. The map that purports to show where European languages are spoken suggests that English is spoken in Quebec as a first language. Janson remarks that "it is not possible to speak a language without vowels," though in practice Circassian, Kabardian and Ubykh, all the languages of the Caucasus, have very few vowels. In speaking of the Mayan writing system, Janson asserts that the Mayans developed a script independently of Europe and Asia, despite some evidence that the Chinese had visited the Americas decades or even centuries before the Europeans. (This hypothesis has been substantiated not only by internal evidence in written history on both sides of the Pacific, but also by archeological findings of ancient Chinese artifacts, notably easy-to-date coins, in British Columbia.) Perhaps more telling, the Chinese, unlike users of almost every other written language in circulation today, wrote and continue to write in pictographs or logograms, as did the Mayans.
Still, such flaws seem mainly to be the result of an effort to reduce the entire essence of language, which, as the author notes, is always entwined with history and politics, into one small, readable volume. The chapter on how languages are in direct competition with each other should be read by anglophones and francophones alike-and by those charged with safeguarding the languages of Canada's native peoples.

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