Reviewed by Anish Koshy, The EFL University, India
The book is part of the IMPACT: Studies in language and society series of publications in sociolinguistics and is organized in nine chapters, including the introduction. The first four chapters set up the theoretical positions on the basis of which the latter chapters discuss four minority language settings.
In his introductory remarks, Edwards, a psychologist by training, lays down the major themes of the book: understanding minority languages and identities through a typology and case studies of such languages.
While discussing the maintenance of small languages in the context of languages in contact and conflict, E considers homogenization of languages as a result of people’s conscious choices and presents bilingualism as a possible solution. He also problematizes the notions of being a linguistic ‘minority’ and attempts at ‘maintaining’ a language. In the next chapter, issues of language decline, revival, and new ecology are discussed. The role of lack of inter-generational transfer in language death is emphasized and hence the role of a community in reviving its language, if only for the symbolic reason of marking identity. E maintains language is not organic and charges many revivalists with archival embalming of languages.
Giving examples of various language struggles, the next chapter discusses the social dynamics of assimilation and pluralism, arguing that linguistic tensions can resolve in four different ways, including communicative language-shift. Seeing language shift and loss as symptoms of a larger dynamic, E argues that the best assessments of linguistic conditions come from a methodological triangulation from various disciplines. Ch. 5 provides a typology of minority-language settings, discussing earlier attempts at typology (e.g. Charles Ferguson’s sociolinguistic profiling model), types of minority situations, and models of typology, concluding with a discussion of E’s own model.
Chs. 6–8 present case studies of Irish, Gaelic in Scotland, and Gaelic in Nova Scotia, providing a historical overview of their settlements, migration, and decline. Revival efforts like the founding of various associations, legislative measures, and media-support, are traced and place of these languages in modern education is also discussed, concluding with remarks on current trends and research findings. The last case study, on Esperanto, traces the history of constructed languages and attempts to discuss it in the same framework.
The book’s claim to be a dispassionate assessment of language maintenance, loss, and shift may not be fully borne out. The author’s very critical remarks on linguists’ approach to dying languages, calling it a doomsday approach, may not be fully justified. Language’s role in defining identity is discussed thoroughly. As the causes of language shift/loss are global and have far-reaching consequences throughout society, the author is justified in arguing for a methodological triangulation.