Book Review: The Last Speakers

The Last Speakers:  The Quest To Save The World’s Most Endangered Languages, by K. David Harrison

My feelings about this book are somewhat complicated, but not because of anything that is in the book itself.  The book itself is an excellent one, but the context that book is in is a troubling one.  For one, this book is a somewhat obvious cash grab on the part of National Geographic to take advantage of the unexpected popular success and critical acclaim of the documentary film The Linguists, which explored the author and some of the speakers of nearly extinct languages he sees around the world.  For another, National Geographic has a well-earned reputation for putting out crappy material [1], and probably did not want to let any opportunity go to try to build some credibility with those who are genuinely fond of linguistics and geography.  And so this enjoyable book has a giant National Geographic logo and the author talks about his career as ways of giving an overrated organization some credibility, which is at least a bit disappointing for those of us who are fond of obscure areas of linguistics [2].  Still, despite the fact that I dislike the commercial context of the book, I will not hold that against the author himself or the interesting subject matter discussed here.

The contents of this book read like a memoir of sorts for a linguist who does not consider himself a polyglot despite admitting that he can work with somewhere in the range of a dozen languages, many of them extremely obscure.  The author takes a more or less chronological trip through his life in linguistics to its beginnings in his missionary kid background, his discovery of his calling in Tuva, his discussion about the power of the words in describing very extensive local conditions, his discussion of the hotspots of linguistic discovery, how one goes about finding hidden languages like the Koro language of India, the complexity of languages in areas like Papua New Guinea, difficulty of helping to preserve stories (many of them various heathen myths) in other cultures, the beauty of songs in some languages, the process by which only a few isolated people remember dying languages, and the attempts of the author to legitimize his efforts in preserving dying languages.  At the base of his interesting experiences and the heartwarming stories of the mostly elderly last speakers whose traumatic early childhood stories are locked in languages that hardly anyone else can understand is a somewhat dubious set of assumptions.

And it is these dubious assumptions regarding worldview that keep this book from being as good as it could be.  The author’s interest in exploring heathen myths about propitiating evil spirits–and at least one of the songs explicitly mentions these spirits as demons [3]–is more than a little bit troubling and casts into doubt the whole viability of the author’s enterprise.  To be sure, it is tragic to lose the detailed local knowledge that is often embedded in obscure languages, and those aspects of language that help people better understand and deal appropriately with their world are worth preserving either in an obscure language or a more commonly spoken one.  In such cases the preservation of knowledge should encourage a language to be more prestigious.  In other cases, though, what is being preserved is demon worship and other kinds of practice, and the world would do a lot better without that sort of diversity.  The author, because he operates under mistaken premises, ends up unintentionally making the case that the expenditure of scarce money and resources for his linguistic projects all too often only goes to preserve heathen culture that is better off extinct and never again called to mind, rather than to preserve useful and beneficial knowledge for humanity as a whole.  To be sure, that was not his intent, though.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

[3] See, for example:

“Masters of Kurbustug’s world, come here, come here!
Masters of skies, let us be as equals and friends!
I am a woman of pure ancestry, not like you,
I want to be useful to the devils and demons (218).”

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, Christianity, History and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Book Review: The Last Speakers

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