The loss of so many languages since settlement is one of Australia's great tragedies. As the author explains, each language gives a unique perspective on the world, both from its wide cultural view and its more specialised, localised focus. But language also benefits from diversity. Of all the words in the Oxford English Dictionary
, 99 per cent are taken from other languages. Andrew Dalby is clearly passionate about this topic but not sentimental. He also knows how to write for a general audience and the book is chock-a-block with little nuggets about the way we talk and communicate.
Thus you will be fascinated to learn that the Puliyanese of south India barely talk at all after the age of 40. French used to be Latin. In the 15th century, someone from Kent would have problems fully understanding someone from London. The Fula language of West Africa has 16 genders. Creole is a type of language, not the name of one. In Cantonese, the word for "worry" is the same as the word for "paint", "thin", "oil", "swim", "friend" and "again" (it all depends on how you say it). Deaf people have an accent when they sign in a language that is not their own. The ancient Gauls spoke entirely in riddles. "Phoney", "gammy" and "roger" (as in "to copulate") all come from Romani. There are 1,652 mother tongues in India.
-- Kathryn Hughes reviewing Language in Danger
in New Statesman
Endangered Languages Week
is on 23-28 February 2009 at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London. The linguistics professor and author at SOAS - Peter K Austin - lists his top 10 endangered languages
in the Guardian. The Transient Languages & Cultures blog
from Sydney Uni has some interesting pieces - like how English acquired wombat
. I'm now looking forward to reading Speaking Our Language: The Story of Australian English
by Bruce Moore (ABC review
, see transcript).