Language Visible and Spoken Here

David Sacks
By Mark Abley

In the beginning was the word, and the word was spoken. Language existed long before words were fixed by characters, giving writing a privileged status as our great cultural transmitter. What we now think of as literature began as spoken word. As Mark Abley reminds us, illiterates composed the Iliad and Odyssey.

But then we started to write things down. The invention and evolution of the alphabet is the subject of David Sacks’s Language Visible. Experts now date the beginning of the alphabet, meaning a system of writing where letters symbolize sounds, at around 2000 BC. Sacks takes the story from there and traces the historical development of each letter in the English alphabet in 26 chapters (the book began as a 26-part weekly series that ran in the Ottawa Citizen).

The letters – “the 26 heroes of our story” – are considered as family members. U, for example, is the mother of V, half-sister of Y, and cousin of F. This is a nice analogy that captures the web of influence and inbreeding among the different letters, as well as our sense of their personal identities. Here is Sacks on C: “In an alphabet that is understaffed, needing a few more letters, C’s position looks embarrassing. You get the impression of a difficult personality, left over from prior management, occupying a big-title job of patchy duties, jealously on guard against her colleagues.”

Each chapter covers the same basic elements, and the history lessons lead to some repetition. Most of our alphabet came from the Phoenicians, who used no vowels, to the Greeks, via the Etruscans to the Roman Empire, and from there out to the colonies. Illustrations of the shape of each letter are given, showing their progression through various alphabets and styles of script to the present day. There is also a discussion of pronunciation, explaining the position of our lips, tongue and teeth when dealing with the “unvoiced labio-dental fricative” F, or the “voiced palatar-alveolar affricate” J. And finally there are some thoughts on the letter’s present place in our culture, like the adoption of E as a prefix suggestive of “electronic” for most things having to do with the Internet (e-mail, eBay and e-commerce).

Language Visible is a fun bit of popular scholarship, a diverting reference book filled with illustrations and sidebars that both entertain and inform. It is also a success story – the story of a “spectacularly successful” invention (the alphabet), culminating in the global triumph of a spectacularly successful language (English).

As Mark Abley’s Spoken Here documents, not all languages have enjoyed such success. Some never even make it to an alphabet. And under political, cultural, and demographic pressures even a language with a rich literary tradition may become extinct.

Spoken Here contains dispatches from the frontlines in the “worldwide battle to prevent language annihilation.” And whether Abley is traveling among the Aborigines in Australia or attending a Yiddish theatre in Montreal, the enemy of these threatened languages is the same. English is “the Wal-Mart of languages: convenient, huge, hard to avoid, superficially friendly, and devouring all rivals in its eagerness to expand.” Or something worse. A native speaker of Yuchi corrects Abley’s analogy by pointing out that “English doesn’t sell the other merchandise – it eliminates the other merchandise.”

The problem is not one of numbers, but power. We may talk of the value of cultural traditions, but culture serves power. Art has a tendency to follow the money. For a language to stay vital it has to be worth knowing. And so the demise of experiments like Esperanto:

A noble ideal, while it lasted. But [it] came without factories or stock markets. No government would issue decrees in it; no studio would make movies in it; no army would fight on its behalf. Lacking any sort of power, Esperanto didn’t have a hope.

Would the loss of what have become local hobby languages like Manx or Provencal be a bad thing? Abley makes a case for why it would by drawing a comparison to biodiversity. We don’t know what we’re losing when a language becomes extinct any more than we know what is being lost when a rainforest disappears. As the naturalist Edward O. Wilson has pointed out, we have no way of assigning a current economic value on the eventual survival or extinction of a species. It would be ridiculous to think that Mohawk is worthless just because there are no jobs in call centers that require it. Languages are more than just a part of a culture. As one expert puts it, they “embody the intellectual wealth of the people that speak them.” To lose a language is to lose not just a history of thought, but an understanding of the world.

Abley sees the battle to prevent language annihilation as part of a wider war, “the fight to sustain diversity on a planet where globalizing, assimilating, and eradicating occur on a massive scale.” There is no checklist for survival, though the few success stories he mentions, like Hebrew, Faroese, and Welsh, would seem to indicate that an aggressive nationalist movement, or something like it, doesn’t hurt.

As the mass media transforms itself online there may be other opportunities. The Internet is dominated by English, but it is also open to diversity in a way that most conventional broadcasting isn’t. Then again, with all of its toolbars and icons – the grammar of the graphic interface – the next lingua franca may involve another kind of alphabet altogether, and a language that hasn’t been invented yet.

Review first published December 13, 2003.

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