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Editorial: O Felix Peccatum Babel!

Spoken Here: Travels among Threatened Languages. Mark Abley. 322 pp., Houghton Mifflin 2003; William Heinemann 2004, ISBN 0 434 01153 3 Review by Nicholas Ostler

This Latin exclamation, "O Happy the Sin of Babel", one of the epigraphs that head this book, is apparently due to J.R.R. Tolkien. Abley like most of the readers of this newsletter does not regard our division into languages as a curse of human existence, and Tolkien, with his imaginative creations of Middle-Earth languages in the style of Welsh, Finnish and Anglo-Saxon, has done as much as anyone to convey to fellow English-speakers what we are missing in our monolingual gloom.

Photo by Todd Church

Abley was first known to readers of Ogmios in 1995 through his endangered language poem Glasburyon (still easily found at

Tega du meun or glasburyon,
kere friende min --
"If you take the girl from the glass castle,
dear kinsman of mine,"
yamna-men eso vrildan stiende
gede min vara te din.
"As long as this world is standing
you'll be spoken of."

He has now written a book which is a contemplation on travels round a good many of the standing glass castles of the world. He visits Northern Australia, to find Murrinh-Patha, the American South-east to speak with the last speakers of Yuchi, the Isle of Man after Manx, Provence in search of its "Lion's Tongue", the US North-east for Mohawk, and finally tracks down Yiddish and Welsh. In the interims, he meditates on some of the issues instinct in these moments of life and death.



How different are these worlds constructed in alien words? What has English got to do with it? (As they say in Moscow, dont vorri bi khepi.) How can some languages, like Boro in the eastern Himalayas, offer words for heart-rending concepts most of us miss? (onsra "to love for the last time", gagrom "to search below water by trampling, gabkhron "to be afraid of witnessing an adventure".) Can languages be sheltered, like endangered species? What does it take to revive a language on the brink of extinction?

This is a very thoughtful book. Abley has a journalist's gift to jump from one incident to another, autobiographical or historic, and draw from them telling details which make the reader think too. What of the parrot found by Alexander Humboldt, still mouthin

Even if you are basically familiar with the endangered language predicament, I urge you to give this book a try. It is less a canter through the issues, as might have been written by a concerned linguist, far more a ponder by a thinking outsider. He is sensitive to the ambivalence of so many members of endangered language communities, seeing how doubtful are the rewards for loyalty to the old language. But language survival can only depend on such individuals.

He ends with a poignant re-analysis of the Tower of Babel. What if God's motive were not to punish overweening mortals for attempting a space programme, but rather to put them back on track; in fact, as the Book says, to "scatter them abroad across the face of the earth". This of course is just what all those languages do, and have always done put people in harmony with all the many places that the earth has to offer.

But in reaching this humane conclusion, Abley is more orthodox than he may know. At least this was one meaning that Thomas Aquinas too saw in the story:

Ita quidem et in turri Babel gestum est: malam enim pacem bona dissonantia solvit. Thomas Aquinas, Catena Aurea in Matthaeum, X, 13 "Just so was it managed in the case of the tower of Babel: for a bad peace is dissolved by a good dissonance."