Friday, 20 December 2013

A ferkakta travelogue

My aippakuluk brought home a book by a Mark Abley called, Spoken Here: Travels among Threatened Languages (2003, Random House Canada). I would not recommend this book to anyone interested in linguistics because it's not about linguistics - it's more an indictment on the pervasiveness of the English language using (ironically) English to belittle English by an English-speaking journalist.

I was looking forward to a good read when I was shown the book. Hmm...the first few pages read like a badly written novel...ok. So, I looked at the back hoping to find an index (there is an index). I looked up Inuit (it's there, along with Eskimos).

The problem as I see it is that the writer assumes there is an objective standard on which different languages (including English) may be measured and judged. There is no such principle in the scientific study of languages which is, in fact, founded upon the principle that any language may be translated into another language (meaning-based translation allows that if only to convey meaning and not the accoutrements - there are minimal levels of conveyance in analysis, after all, that allow us to see something of a coherence in our observations). Not to say that Abley is an analyst.

There is a section on Yiddish (look up "ferkakta" as in Wolowitz' mother say she doesn't want the ferkakta computer giving her a virus) where he just starts peppering the section with Yiddish (he does that). Right...

I've spent a majority of my working career thinking about the nature of language; it is a beautiful mystery to me: something familiar yet mysterious where the consistent nature is adumbrated at its roots but whose rolling out is nonlinear and oftentimes unpredictable but utterly rational if put under close scrutiny. I think this is how mathematical proofs work as well, why they are often considered "beautiful" and "elegant". All languages, including English, have this abstract beauty.

The thing about languages is that grammatical structures are what are called "information-rich" structures - there is always more than is obvious.

There is none of that insight in Abley. In fact, he is so intent on something illusory that he never even finds his voice. His book reads like a cut and paste job and one can tell that he spent his grant/advance on other things and writing up was merely an after-thought.

Jay

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