Only God speaks Kamassian

Walter Nash

  • The World’s Major Languages edited by Bernard Comrie
    Croom Helm, 1025 pp, £50.00, March 1988, ISBN 0 7099 3243 X
  • Studies in Lexicography edited by Robert Burchfield
    Oxford, 200 pp, £27.50, April 1988, ISBN 0 19 811945 3
  • Van Winkle’s Return: Change in American English 1966-1986 by Kenneth Wilson
    University Press of New England, 193 pp, £7.95, August 1988, ISBN 0 87451 394 4
  • Words at Work: Lectures on Textual Structure by Randolph Quirk
    Longman, 137 pp, £5.75, March 1988, ISBN 0 582 00120 X
  • The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language by David Crystal
    Cambridge, 472 pp, £25.00, November 1988, ISBN 0 521 26438 3

In the third book of Gulliver’s Travels there is a gobbledygook machine. Designed by the ingenious academicians of Lagado, it consists of a frame filled with vocables that can be shuffled at the turn of a crank, and its brave technological purpose is to generate a universe of discourse. What it manufactures, of course, is scrambled poppycock: for language is the product neither of cranks nor yet of chips, but of the human mind as it projects one ruling competence onto a diversity of actual tongues. How great a diversity, Swift can hardly have imagined; it needed the researches of a William Jones or a Wilhelm von Humboldt to begin to persuade literary Europeans that they were not quite the masters of the speaking world.

Now we know better – well, perhaps just a little. We know that something like four thousand languages are spoken in the world today (‘at a very conservative estimate,’ says Bernard Comrie), and we know that everywhere they challenge our culture-bound ideas of what speech-sounds, writing systems, morphologies, patterns of syntax and discourse conventions should be like. To become acquainted with the structure of at least one foreign language is to take a step in the right direction – away from the Academy of Lagado. What Professor Comrie offers, for our continued enlightenment, is a series of fifty descriptions, by eminent scholars, of the distinctive characteristics of the world’s major languages and language-groups. But what is a ‘major’ language? It seems that the notion is to a lesser extent demographic and to a greater extent social and cultural. It is something for a language to be spoken by a fairly large number of people, but this in itself is not enough, and in some cases is irrelevant: Latin, for example, is here considered a major language. More important than brute numbers are the social functions of speech – in diplomacy and international relations, in business, sport, tourism, travel – and its cultural pervasiveness, through literature, philosophy, the recording of experience and the transmission of ideas. By these sometimes elusive criteria, Polish and Pashto, Spanish and Sanskrit qualify as major languages in their own quarters of the globe, and are fully treated in Professor Comrie’s collection. Other tongues mutter plaintively from parentheses and hurried little asides – if they are allowed to speak at all, for languages, like species, are dwindling and dying all around us. Comrie records how ‘linguists learned in 1970 that the last speaker of Kamassian, a Uralic language originally spoken in Siberia, had kept her language alive for decades in her prayers.’ So now only God speaks Kamassian. Ah, you crass mechanics of Lagado, crank away at that.

There are people who will respond with a kind of awe-stricken glee to the information that Papua New Guinea has 750 languages for a population of just over three million people; and there are those who will grumble that the beggars would be better-off speaking English. If you are that sort of sullen monoglot, this book is not for you; but if you like language to be various and mottled, like a garden of agreeable beasts, this is your guide to the greatest show on earth. The languages it describes are listed in sections, according to their genetic groupings; each section contains a general account of the languages of the group, and essays on individual languages. The longest section, as one might expect, is devoted to the Indo-European group. It contains 26 chapters, by contrast with the section on Tamil and the Dravidian languages, which consists of only one essay. In all cases the contributions suggest a degree of editorial control, in that they approximate to a standard pattern of exposition; the typical procedure is that an introductory section on the historical and social background is followed by sections on the script, the phonology, the morphology and syntax, the discourse conventions and the lexicon of the language concerned. This expository norm accommodates the description of features pre-eminently characteristic of particular languages: of scripts (the Arabic script, the Devanagari of Sanskrit and Hindi, the kana syllabaries of Japanese), of phonologies (the tones of Chinese and Yoruba), of morphologies (the complex agglutinations of Turkish and the Bantu languages, the root-and-pattern forms of the Semitic group), of syntax (the marking of clause patterns in Tagalog).

Thus constructed, the book steadily informs and occasionally entertains. How pleasant to learn, for instance, that in older dictionaries of Arabic ‘a word is listed by what it ends with ... The reason that this was done was to make life easier for the poets.’ And how amusing to discover that the lexicon of Japanese includes phonomimes, phenomimes and psychomimes; a phonomime being a word like gata-gata, ‘clattering noise’, mimicking a sound, a phenomime depicting a state – like yoboyobo, ‘wobbly’ – and a psychomime evoking a mental reflex, like tikutiku, ‘stingingly’. Swift would have enjoyed this (and is yahoo a phonomime, a phenomime, a psychomime, or all three?). But of course the purpose of the book is not to provide casual amusement for the browser. To appreciate its educational value, the reader should choose a theme in language and follow it under the direction of Professor Comrie and his associates.

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