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Through the Year with Master D: Language

May 3, 2011 by Reader's Connection

Ora, dopo una lunga attesa, si raggiunge il 400´s. Nach mbeidh sé seo a bheith spraoi? Aku suka Melvil Dewey begitu banyak .

The 000s. Generalities
The 100’s: Philosophy & Psychology Three Questions We Never Stop Asking
The 200’s: Religion What Was Lost: A Christian Journey through Miscarriage
The 300’s: Social Sciences How Wars End: Why We Always Fight the Last Battle: A History of American Intervention from World War I to Afghanistan

The 400s. Language

The 500s. Natural Sciences & Mathematics
The 600s. Technology (Applied Sciences)
The 700s. The Arts
The 800s. Literature & Rhetoric
The 900s. History & Geography


I´m midway through a couple of books from the 400’s. One of them is an earnest work about disappearing languages and the other is a frequently hilarious book about words that are having a hard time coming into existence.  

408.9 HAR

The Last Speakers: The Quest to Save the World’s Most Endangered Languages by K. David Harrison

The Last Speakers: The Quest to Save the World's Most Endangered Languages“At least a hundred indigenous languages of Australia are now in danger of extinction.” A hundred languages? And that´s just in Australia? David Harrison is a linguist, one of the founders of National Geographic’s Enduring Voices project, and creator of the term “language hotspots.” He wants everyone to be as aware of the disappearance of languages as they are of the disappearance of animal and plant species.

Languages aren’t  just arrangements of grammar and vocabulary for Harrison. “We need to know where and in what state of vitality [languages] exist, what kinds of knowledge systems they contain, and what that knowledge reveals about the natural world. We will need the entire sum of human knowledge as it is encoded in all the world’s languages to truly understand and care for the planet we live on.”

By his lights, we have much to learn from these disappearing languages about healing, meterology and a host of other subjects. So the book becomes a set of anthropological snapshots rather than a text about verbal structures. You may disagree with the value Harrison places on indigenous visions and practices–one of the healing rituals described sounds to me like the oldest sideshow scam in town–but I’m inclined to disapprove of the steamrolling of cultures, and the idea of “hidden languages” and the disputes over the “ownership” of languages are new to me and worth the read. 


422 HOR

Alex Horne’s Wordwatching : Breaking into the Dictionary : It’s His Word against Theirs (I think I prefer the simpler subtitle that appears on the cover art below).

Wordwatching : Breaking into the Dictionary : It's His Word against TheirsHorne is an Australian standup comic and writer who wants to become immortal by inventing some words. He recruits ten friends, whom he refers to as Verbal Gardeners, to help him invent words and then spread them around–among their acquaintances and through whatever media they can influence– in the hope that these newbies will eventually be included in dictionaries.

The two candidates that appear on this cover art are bollo, which means Unsatisfying and disappointing, with the alternate meaning A cry of disgust, and pratdigger, which means Pickpocket and has an alternate meaning that would fill up this blogpost.

I was afraid that the humor in this effort would quickly grow thin, but I’m on page 158 and Mr. Horne can still make me laugh. His Wikipedia raid is a blast. As one of his Verbal Gardeners puts it, I haven’t had to swallow the bollo. And when he isn’t relating the progress of bollo and pratdigger and mental safari (which is self-explanatory and describes this whole book) Horne provides the histories of other words that have succeeded in reaching the dictionaries. 

Taken together, The Last Speakers and Wordwatching, so different in tone, coalesce surprisingly into a perfect havdalahalley.


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