407 The Last Speakers: The Quest to Save the World’s Most Endangered Languages, by K. David Harrison (2010).
Part manifesto, all National Geographic, this book belabors three main points:
1. Rare and endangered languages encode unique knowledge about the world, and therefore
2. endangered languages must be saved. Happily,
3. K. David Harrison will save the day!
It’s rather unusual for me to be so ambivalent about a book when, objectively speaking, I’m in agreement with all of its tenets (well, 1 & 2 for sure). The problem is that the book is literally a Nat. Geo. publication that is based on a TV show/ film about K. David Harrison, intrepid linguist, traveling the world to take down the wisdom of the last speakers of various languages. When he writes about his own fieldwork, in remote parts of Siberia, it’s an interesting read, with a satisfying mix of difficult travels, strange foods, and the mental struggles of learning not just new languages but new ways of thinking. (The neatest example is of the language of a herding culture that has a word for the short side of a hill– meaning, the side that is steepest and therefore is avoided when moving livestock.)
The problems crop up, though, when he starts jetting around the world, dropping in to chat with last speakers on almost every continent. It’s not clear that he ever stays for more than a few days at a time and, though I’m sure these kamikaze runs make for good TV, they’re antithetical to Harrison’s entire purpose– that of using language to frame the world as others see it. Yes, the project as a whole is clearly designed to draw attention and convince a new audience that language loss matters, but I’d rather read something with less repetition and more substance.