Reviewed by Josep Soler-Carbonell, University of Oxford
This revised translation of the original 2000 edition in French is a masterpiece in the available literature regarding the threats and consequences of language homogenization and loss. It contains a wealth of information and illustrative examples from a vast range of languages from all parts of the world and from different historical periods, an unmistakable sign of the top-notch linguist that the reader is being guided by. The writing style is clear and easy to follow, for which the translator deserves credit; the book is accessible, in general terms, for a broad audience and not only for experts on the topic.
The book is divided into three parts: ‘Languages and life’, ‘Languages and death’, and ‘Languages and resurrection’. It contains eleven chapters and a final conclusion. In the first part, comprising Chs. 1–4, the running argument is the link that exists between languages and human life, touching upon the notion of language as a living species, with regard to how they are similar and how they differ. The second part (Chs. 5–9) explores in depth the link between languages and death, analyzing what we mean by a ‘dead’ language, what constitute possible ways (‘paths’) that a language becomes extinct, and what the potential causes are. Ch. 8 provides a general overview of the language situation across the world and makes explicit the link between language and culture, as well as the loss that the extinction of a language implies for all of humanity.
From the many examples that the book provides, the following one can be highlighted. In Pomo, spoken by a few people 160 kilometers north of San Francisco, the notion of ‘running’ can be expressed in five different verbal forms that combine affixes and radicals in different ways in order to convey five different meanings: (i) if the running is performed by a single individual, (ii) if the running is performed by a group, (iii) if the runner has four feet, (iv) if there are many runners of this type, and (v) if those referred to are a group of humans in a car.
The third and final part, including Chs. 10 and 11 and the conclusion, comprises the climax of the book. Ch. 10 describes the history of Hebrew in full detail, from ancient times until the present day, with a focus on the nineteenth century and on Ben-Yehuda. The optimistic message of this chapter, and of the book in general, is that reviving a language is not easy. It is a difficult undertaking, demanding a lot of effort and a very specific and favorable context, but if a group of resolved individuals are determined to persevere and carry on that aim, it can be achieved.