February 10, 2006

Spoken Here...
There are about 6000 languages spoken on earth right now, but they are vanishing with the rapid expansion of a few languages (notably English). I'm reading a book right now called "Spoken Here" by Mark Abley. It's basically about threatened and extinct languages around the world, written by a journalist so it's not full of linguistic jargon (which would actually be nice in some cases, especially if he would've used IPA to give phonetics for foreign words). He does a good job of weaving stories and linguistics together. I figured that I'd post some of the cool and weird things that are mentioned in the book.
The first interesting bit is about some of the languages found in the Caucasus Mountains. If you're not sure where they are, think of Armenia, southern Russia, and Georgia -not the state, but the country where Stalin was born. A language there called Ubykh contains 83 (that's right, eighty-three) consonants, and only two vowels! By contrast, English has 25, Mandarin 21, and French only 20 consonants. The last person to speak the language, Tevfik Esenc, died on October 7, 1992. Now all that remains of the language are a few recordings.
Another example in the book is a language called Mati Ke, an aboriginal language in Northern Australia, which was probably only ever spoken by about 1000 people. It's currently spoken by only 3 people on the planet. The problem is that one of the people speaks in a dialect, and the other two are forbidden to talk due to cultural taboos (brothers and sisters aren't allowed to talk after puberty). What happens when they die?

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