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Preston Jones


Endangered Species

3,000 of the world's 6,000 languages are scheduled for extinction by the year 2100.

Language Death, by David Crystal, Cambridge University Press, 198 pp.; $19.95

Vanishing Voices: The Extinction of the World's Languages, by Daniel Nettle and Suzanne Romaine, Oxford University Press, 241 pp.; $27.50

Dictionary of Louisiana Creole, edited by Albert Valdman, Thomas Klingler, Margaret M. Marshall, and Kevin J. Rottet, Indiana University Press, 656 pp.; $89.95

Save the trees, save the ozone, save the lonely dogs now wasting in the backyards of middle-class America. Causes pile up and pit themselves against shrinking time. And then, sometimes, time just runs out. The Ubykh language was heard in the northwestern Caucasus until its last speaker, Tefvik Esenc, died in 1992. The last native speaker of Manx, the Celtic speech of the Isle of Man, was Ned Maddrell, who died in 1974. And while Manx enthusiasts have brought the language back into their island's cultural life, it's unlikely that fluency on the order of Maddrell's will ever again be captured. Ditto for Cornish. Ditto for the Gaelic dialect spoken in East Sutherland, Scotland, whose death has been so competently documented by linguist Nancy Dorian. Ditto as well for the some 51 languages in the world that, as of 1999, had a single speaker. And also, unless something is done to alter the present reality, for the 3,000 of the world's 6,000 languages that are scheduled for extinction by the year 2100.

Four percent of the world's population—mostly indigenous peoples inhabiting out-of-the-way places—speak 96 percent of the world's languages. Five hundred of the globe's tongues now have less than 100 speakers. A Coke and fries will never be ordered in Eyak, Wappo, or Catawba Sioux.

David Crystal, Daniel Nettle, and Suzanne Romaine are understandably upset, and they want something to be done to stop linguistic decline. "To fight to preserve the smaller cultures and languages may turn out to be the struggle to preserve the most precious things that make us human before we end up in the land fill of history," ...

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