Human history and its perceived progression has put paid to thousands of languages over millennia, and while the reasons for their demise may often be murky or forgotten, you can bet they were rarely if ever benign. James Griffiths’ book Speak Not offers studies of three languages – Welsh, Hawaiian and Cantonese – which have been threatened with extinction in recent memory, a larger neighbour bearing ample responsibility each time, and have rallied with varying degrees of success. (In between these sections are two shorter chapters on Afrikaans and Yiddish, which don’t precisely fit the above description but are contextually relevant.)
Griffiths, a Welshman who reports on China and other Asian countries for a Canadian newspaper, has a certain investment in the politics of two of his main subjects, indeed he adds a personal touch by cheerfully recalling he and his father vying to be the better Welsh learner on Duolingo. Hark backs to the tongue’s analogue-era fight for survival, with the sometimes farcical campaigns of the Free Wales Army and Mudiad Amddiffyn Cymru, have their equivalents in Hawaiian native advocacy groups and defiant speakers of Cantonese and Tibetan in the face of Chinese hegemony. Speak Not teases out both differences and similarities between his examples, be that in the racial dimension or level of state violence in their oppression, with both sensitivity and passion.
Speak Not, James Griffiths (Zed)
Price: £20. Info: here
words NOEL GARDNER