Winner of the British Association of Applied Linguistics Book Prize 2001
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Where have all the languages gone?
Chapter 2 A world of diversity
Chapter 3 Lost words/Lost Worlds
Chapter 4 The ecology of language
Chapter 5 The biological wave
Chapter 6 The economic wave
Chapter 7 Why something should be done
Chapter 8 Sustainable futures
References and further reading
Few people know that nearly 100 native languages once spoken in what is now
California are near extinction, or that most of Australia's 250 aboriginal languages
have vanished. In fact, at least half of the world's languages may die out in the next
century. What has happened to these voices? Should we be alarmed about the disappearance
of linguistic diversity?The authors of Vanishing Voices assert that this trend
is far more than simply disturbing. Making explicit the link between language survival
and environmental issues, they argue that the extinction of languages is part of the
larger picture of near-total collapse of the worldwide ecosystem. Indeed, the authors
contend that the struggle to preserve precious environmental resources-such as the
rainforest-cannot be separated from the struggle to maintain diverse cultures, and
that the causes of language death, like that of ecological destruction, lie at the
intersection of ecology and politics. And while Nettle and Romaine defend the world's
endangered languages, they also pay homage to the last speakers of dying tongues,
such as Red Thundercloud, a Native American in South Carolina, Ned Maddrell, with whom the
Manx language passed away in 1974, and Arthur Bennett, an Australian, the last person
to know more than a few words of Mbabaram. In our languages lies the accumulated
knowledge of humanity. Indeed, each language is a unique window on experience. Vanishing
Voices is a call to preserve this resource, before it is too late.
From the jacket cover
Language extinction is a great tragedy for human culture and for scholarship on
all things human. This fascinating book is the latest word on this important issue,
containing a wealth of knowledge and wisdom. If we have the good sense to rescue
the priceless legacy of linguistic diversity before it vanishes forever, Vanishing
Voices will surely deserve a good part of the credit. - Steven Pinker, MIT, author of
The Language Instinct and Words and Rules.
Vanishing Voices is an urgent call to arms about the impending
loss of one of our great resources. Nettle and Romaine paint a breathtaking landscape
that shows why so many of the world's languages are disappearing and more importantly,
why it matters. They put the problem of linguistic diversity into the wider context of global biodiversity,
and propose the revolutionary idea that saving endangered languages is not about dictionaries and educational programs,
but about preserving the cultures and habitats of the people who speak them. Along the way it's also a fascinating
introduction to how language works: how languages are born, how they die, and how we can prevent
their death. - Deborah Tannen, Georgetown University, author of You Just Don't Understand and
The Argument Culture.
From the reviews
"[Vanishing Voices is] a superb study of endangered languages. ...the
tapestry of supporting detail is every bit as compelling as the central thesis." -
The New Yorker (July 31, 2000).
"The fact that whole languages and ways of thinking are disappearing into the ether - ping! extinguished forever - when the last speaker dies is sad beyond measure." -Katherine Powers, The Boston Globe (July 30, 2000).
"...preserving local languages doesn't have to mean consigning their speakers to the economic and political margins. Rather, economic development, biodiversity, and linguistic diversity become interdependent parts of a single sustainability strategy that requires greater honoring of local knowledge and ways of life." Whole Earth (September 22, 2000).
"Nettle and Romaine ... are fascinating as they speculate ...
on how human speech evolved from a "primordial" state, in which isolated bands
of hunter-gatherers all spoke their own tongues, to a more lopsided
distribution of languages that came into play with the advent of farming
roughly 10,000 years ago." -Michael Upchurch, Seattle Times (August 27, 2000).
"...the death of a language means more than the destruction of a linguistic tradition that may stretch back thousands of years. It also signifies one more step along the path to bland globalisation, a process by which the richly varied quiltwork of local custom is relentlessly steamrollered by the economic imperative of
the "one world, one language" mantra." -Richard Morrison, The Times (December 21, 2000).
"...the key to saving dying tongues lies in the preservation of the cultures and
habitats of the people who speak them." - Science (May 18, 2001).
"Romaine and Nettle write with a preservationist's passion in the hope
they can rally those who support more conventional environmental causes--to
save the whales or safeguard old-growth forests--to aid these most unique
human resources. Nettle and Romaine offer an authoritative overview of
languages on the brink, rich in anecdote and shrewdly political. ...
Nettle and Romaine rightly remind us that we are living through one of
history's unique mass extinctions. It is one measured in the dying whispers
from lost worlds of words." -Robert Holt, LA Times
"Recounting how the world's linguistic treasury has come to be
depleted, Vanishing Voices is an impassioned polemic to halt the
process before it is too late. ... an important book that blends linguistics
with anthropology, ecology, and politics." - Steven G. Kellman, USA
Today Magazine (January 2001).
"Nettle and Romaine have packed an enormous amount into their book, which ranges
well beyond the specific issues surrounding endangerment. ... Vanishing Voices
is a book that needs to be chain-read, therefore: read it, then tell someone else to."
-David Crystal, Times Higher Education Supplement (February 9, 2001)
"Vanishing Voices proves that what its authors call biolinguistic diversity
- the rich landscape of life encompassing all the earth's species of
plants and animals, along with all the earth's people and their languages -
should be of great and immediate concern to all of us." -Diarmaid Ó Muirithe,
The Irish Times (September 23, 2000).
"This is the very scary story of cultural genocide, deforestation,
urbanization and the disturbing trend toward monocultures. ...Vanishing
Voices is a must read in these times of corporate monopolies and formula
businesses." -Sara A. Krumwiede, Boulder Weekly
"...its unique contribution lies in its long view of human history,
within which, first, linguistic diversity and, now, language endangerment are
seen as the results of powerful forces that have combined to shape people's
lives and interactions with each other." -Wallace Chafe, The Santa Barbara
"The book gives a holistic approach to language preservation,
and no matter how diplomatic we may think we are, this book will unsettle us
and perhaps even make us that bit angry. This is no bad thing and at least
the book does what others have failed to do - that is put the plight of language
loss firmly in front of us." -Chris Hadfield, Ogmios, Newsletter of the Foundation
for Endangered Languages.
"Nettle and Romaine recommend a new political approach. Instead of destroying the status of little languages, why not encourage true bilingualism by giving the small languages a role in the legal, university, medical and other elite systems of their countries? It is not economic irrelevance that kills a small language, but rather lack of status in the eyes of majority speakers." -Ray Conlogue, The Globe and Mail (March 24, 2001).
"Language loss is obviously a form of cultural impoverishment, but the damage extends far beyond the
communities immediately affected. ...Millennia of human experience are wrapped up in the planet's many languages, and this linguistic diversity may be as essential to our cultural health as biological diversity is to our physical health." -Payal Sampat, World Watch (May 1, 2001).
"...the most original and thought-provoking reason for joining the fight for language preservation is linked
to the book's central theme, which sets it aside from any other book yet written on this subject: language preservation is
one and the same as environmental protection. ...a powerfully written and carefully researched appeal to linguists, ethuographers, and the scientific community as a whole to wake up to the dramatic consequences of neglecting the issue of linguistic diversity." - Jim Walker, Human Ecology: An Interdisciplinary Journal (March 1, 2002).
"This is a book which I hope will prompt governments, scholars, communities and individuals to act in order to
ensure the survival of this region's wealth of small languages into the future. This includes making international, national and local government and non-government agencies aware of the essential importance of language survival as part of a package of promoting sustainable rural development and linguistic and cultural pluralism." -Terry Crowley, Waikato Times (July 6, 2002).
"In their ground-breaking work on the crisis facing the world's languages, Vanishing Voices, Daniel Nettle and
Suzanne Romaine paint a stark picture of our collective inability to recognise the importance of language survival.
Some 60% of world languages are probably in danger of extinction (and that number includes Gaelic and Scots), yet
only now is society beginning to recognise the links between biological and linguistic diversity." -Michael Russell, The Herald (March 3, 2003).