One Thousand Languages: Living, Endangered, and Lost

One Thousand Languages: Living, Endangered, and Lost, edited by Peter K. Austin was a Christmas gift from Mark eight years ago. The book was divided into geographic regions and then broken down into the major languages within each region. Small maps accompanied the longer language profiles as well as charts showing the numbering system from one to ten. I liked the charts showing various lists of words in related languages and loanwords (which may or may not be from English). The final three chapters were devoted to endangered languages, extinct languages, and to larger and more colourful maps. One Thousand Languages was only 288 pages long but took me eleven days to read. I normally lap up anything written about languages but this book’s format–as well as its overall heft, as it was printed on a heavy paper–made me only want to take it in small doses. Each language profile started the same way, identifying its history, number of speakers, writing system as well as one or two particular traits. The structure of each profile never varied. Austin also lifted word-for-word entire paragraphs to describe similar languages. There was no variety in the reading experience. I understand this was meant to be a reference book, one which the reader picked up and read about a certain region or a specific language or two. It was probably not intended to be read cover to cover. As I did read it just like that I found the experience tiring. That does not mean at all that I didn’t find the book itself enjoyable. I just couldn’t curl up with it for hours at a time. The font was another reason to keep my reading time down to a minimum: it was too thin for my eyes to read without a magnifying glass. The font was similar to Century Gothic or Futura but a visit to the Identifont website didn’t turn up any matches. The microscopic size of the type used in captions was impossible to read without a magnifying aid.

I took plentiful notes about alphabets and linguistic phenomena which I will research later. This book will serve as a valuable launching pad to discover characteristics of other languages I had never heard of. As I turned each page I recognized names of languages that I had only heretofore encountered at Schoenhof’s. My notes reveal that I took particular interest in extinct alphabets and how they were supplanted by others, for example the Roman or Cyrillic. Wonders of world languages abound, and I learned about the three degrees of vowel length in the Ghanaian language of Ga (short, long and extra long). Sindhi has four implosive stops. There are three sets of pronouns in South Efate, the choice of which depends on whether the action is in the past, present or future. Thus the three words for the pronoun I are: kai (past), a (present) and ka (future). I took a keen interest in the indigenous languages of North America, particularly Cherokee, but found the following statement derogatory:

“The Cherokee self-name is unpronounceable in Cherokee and has been adapted as Tsalagi.”

Wouldn’t the Cherokee self-name be unpronounceable for an unskilled English speaker and not for a Cherokee? In the chapter on the indigenous languages of North America I also learned that Bungee was a Cree creole with Scots Gaelic, spoken in Manitoba. My curiosity about Cherokee has been piqued and since I had already been looking into books on other First Nations languages such as Michif and Oji-Cree I think I will investigate these indigenous languages first. (I hope to travel to northern Ontario. To me, “northern Ontario” means north of Lake Superior, and the language of the First Nations there is Oji-Cree.)

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