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One Thousand Languages: Living, Endangered, and Lost.

One Thousand Languages: Living, Endangered, and Lost. Peter K. Austin, ed. Berkeley. University of California Press. 2008. 288 pages, ill. $29.95. ISBN 978-0-520-25560-9


It is surprising that the concept behind One Thousand Languages had not yet spawned a book; it's a coffee-table, general-interest Ethnologue--the Summer Institute of Linguistics' encyclopedic volume of all the world's languages, which this volume quotes but is otherwise unaffiliated with--profiling one thousand of the world's 6,000-plus languages. It is a beautiful book, full of photographs, maps, and charts accessibly arranged and explained.

The book is written from the perspective of a linguistic anthropologist or sociocultural linguist rather than that of a theoretical linguist or language surveyor, which is a great advantage for its market. Most of its section editors work outside the confines of the generative linguistics that dominates North American academia. From its introduction forward, the book seeps knowledgeable enthusiasm, offering a clear and concise portrait of the world's languages. The linguistic thumbnails are grouped by size and language, beginning with the world's major languages, termed "world languages," continuing with lesser-used languages grouped by region, and ending with the categories "endangered" and "extinct."

The typical language thumbnail includes a summarized history of the language's evolution, basic descriptions of grammar and sound systems, without excessive linguistic apparatus (and a glossary is included), an overview of its use today, and any peculiarities. The book does introduce some topics likely unfamiliar to the general reader, like multiple object marking (Kinyarwanda) and tonal relative clauses (Luba).

Most language profiles include a sampling of several words and example scripts showing their alphabets, often numbers one through ten--certainly a gimmick, but an effective one for the medium. Once the largest languages within their own categories have been depleted, the remaining profiled languages seem to have been selected arbitrarily, though some earn longer profiles for their eclecticism.

One Thousand Languages is a valuable addition to the coffee-table books of the language lover or literary eclectic. It is unlikely to be of professional use to the practicing linguist, but it is a valuable tool for redressing our limited knowledge of the world's languages and their speakers.

David Shook

Oxford University
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Author:Shook, David
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book review
Date:May 1, 2009
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