Travelling among threatened languages

Students and faculty at Glendon and other interested listeners were treated to a fascinating reading on March 14, by award-winning poet, journalist, critic and author Mark Abley. Held in the Senior Common Room of York Hall on the Glendon campus, Abley’s talk was this year’s second event in the bp Nichol Reading Series, sponsored by the Canada Council.

Left: Mark Abley

Despite suffering from a cold, Abley succeeded in winning over his audience, both with his work and his obvious passion for language preservation. An excerpt from his recent non-fiction book, Spoken Here: Travels among Threatened Languages (which is a combination of linguistic adventure and travel literature) outlined the plight of the Boro language. Spoken in northeastern India, this language is dwindling due to the poverty of its speakers, as well as to more dominant languages (such as Hindi), which are becoming prevalent among younger speakers.

Abley explained that what is lost when a language becomes extinct is not only the collection of physical words, but also the unique ideas, which cannot be expressed in quite the same way in another language. For example, Boro has verbs with precise meanings, such as “to fall in a well unknowingly”, “to express anger by a sidelong glance” and “to hit one’s heart”. These words are not only “fresh sounds on the tongue, but fresh thoughts in the mind,” remarked Abley.

It is estimated that by the end of the 21st century, half of the 6,000 languages spoken in our world will be extinct. Although Abley is not quite so pessimistic about the fate of language diversity, he does stress the importance of teaching new languages to children, and of the need for everyone to “embrace uncertainty, to venture outside the mother tongue.” In a multilingual and international campus such as Glendon, his message could not be more relevant.

This article was submitted to YFile by Rena Klisouris, fourth-year English major at Glendon.