- Halte à la mort des langues by Claude Hagège
As its title suggests, Hagège’s latest book is essentially an appeal for a halt to language death. H notes that approximately 25 languages become extinct every year; at this rate, half of today’s estimated 5,000 living languages will have died out in the next hundred years. The book is accordingly divided into three parts: ‘Languages and life’ (15–64), ‘Languages and death’ (65–267), and ‘Languages and resurrection’ (269–360).
In Part 1, H explains, among other things, the Darwinian notion of natural selection as it applies to languages. Languages compete among each other to stay alive, and dominated languages become endangered when they have insufficient means at their disposal to resist the pressure placed on them by dominant languages (27). This is a theme that H takes up again in his ‘Conclusion’ (361–67): There, as a prime example of a dominant language, H cites English which, he claims, has at its disposal such vast resources for its dissemination that no language with which English might initially coexist in a bilingual environment can compete with it on an equal footing. Invoking the Saussurean concepts of langue and parole, H also observes that ‘dead’ languages like Latin demonstrate that the death of parole (linguistic performance by native speakers) does not necessarily entail the extinction of langue (the linguistic code per se; 43–45).
In Part 2, H explains the concept of ‘dead language’ (67–91), delineates the ‘paths’ leading to a language’s extinction (93–125), discusses ‘the battalion of causes’ for a language’s demise (127–94), and reviews typical features of language maintenance and the struggle to keep endangered languages alive (231–67). Among H’s more interesting observations is the notion that the prestige of a given language is nothing more than the (economic, social, and political) prestige of its speakers and that ‘demand’ for certain languages determines their prestige in almost the same way as market demand for certain stocks determines the value of their shares (156). Well-placed statistical observations enhance H’s discussion. It is interesting to read, for example, that the number of languages spoken in the world probably reached a peak in the early sixteenth century and has declined ever since and that 90% of today’s languages are spoken by about only 5% of the world’s inhabitants (196–99).
Part 3, devoted to the revival of dead and moribund languages, is dominated by an inordinately lengthy, 71-page discussion of Hebrew, both Ancient (Biblical) and Modern (Israeli) (271–341). After referring to the ‘rebirth’ (renaissance) of Hebrew for most of this discussion, H decides that it is more appropriate to speak of Hebrew’s ‘revivification’ (reviviscence, 325). Somewhat surprisingly, H never addresses the view, espoused by some, that Israeli Hebrew is a sort of ‘relexified’ Yiddish, particularly in view of its grammatical categories, which are more characteristic of Indo-European languages than they are of Semitic ones. More concerned with Israeli Hebrew’s derivational processes, H merely states: ‘En dépit de leur attachement aux formes classiques de l’hébreu, les constructeurs n’ont pu faire qu’il ne possédât aussi des aspects de langue occidentale’ (330).
In his conclusion, H portrays English as the greatest threat to the survival of most languages, including Spanish (particularly in Latin America) and his own mother tongue, French. Ironically, H omits mentioning the danger that French itself poses to the survival of such languages as Breton, Provençal, or Occitan. Such quibbles aside, the book, devoid of overly technical jargon, is likely to provide enjoyable and informative reading to linguists and nonlinguists alike.