Michael Glover

The great English blight

Text settings

Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages

Mark Abley

Heinemann, pp. 322, £

Mark Abley is a Canadian poet of Welsh descent who has recently been travelling the world in search of minority languagues which are bleeding to death or, in the case of Welsh, Faroese and Basque, just about succeeding in staunching their gaping wounds. This is an emotive subject for many writers (perhaps especially for poets), the fact that every year, somewhere in the world, the last wheelchair-bound speaker of some native tongue is probably expiring somewhere in a nursing home, surrounded by middle-aged socio-linguists with highly sensitive voice recorders, as he takes with him those 27 different words which somehow manage to mean, by some miracle of mouth-gapingly ancient linguistic contrivance, mist-partially-rising-over-pre-dawn-snow.

How much the poorer the world will be once all that is lost! And so, understandably enough, the tone of this book is lyrical, if not threnodic, much of the time — a long keening over the unstoppable march of, God blast its very name, English, that undiscriminating, pot-bellied Wal-Mart of world languages. And this is why when he talks of these old-time survivors with such a catch in his throat, he makes statements such as the following: ‘his beard and flowing hair the colour of the snow he has never seen.’ Pure, sad, heavy, wholly unbridled lyricism, I say again.

And once the ancient tongue has gone of course, likely never to return (except that Hebrew did), identity will be erased, and the rootless young will be awash out there in the teeming, godless world with nothing for company but flat-brain TVs, glittering hypodermics, sugary drinks and the Simpsons on an everlasting loop. And yes, there may well be attempts being made, even now, to stave off that moment of extinction, to give some linguistic dodo or other that last powerful shot in the foreleg before it finally keels over altogether by producing work-books, CD-roms, cassette tapes. But to what avail if there is no mother to whisper the Mohawk term for overloaded diaper into the ear of a tender and linguistically impressionable daughter, and no father to remind his son of the native term for ‘chassis’ as they both disappear together beneath the four-wheel-drive?

But that is not all by any means. There is more to Abley than this. This man is not to be mocked. Though he refuses to describe himself as a linguist, his analyses of the old languages themselves are unusually penetrating and astute. He describes the marvellous complexity of some of them with great dexterity, reminding us that they are far from the rude, primitive, ‘barbarous’ tongues that those colonisers who strove to destroy them in the interests of imperial uniformity would have had our credulous ancestors believe. He uses terms which leave us reeling: tensed embeddings, passive adjectives, unreality endings, for example. Those are the kinds of hermetic turns of phrase which grammarians use when they meet wherever they meet, he informs us. He describes with good sense and true impartiality the terrible war which rages to this day in the south of France between the partisans of Occitan and those who fight beneath the still stirring banner of Proven