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A good starting point for the language-curious

One Thousand Languages: Living, Endangered and Lost
One Thousand Languages: Living, Endangered and Lost
Edited by Peter K. Austin

University of California Press: 2008

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This review first appeared in the October 5, 2008 issue of the North County Times.

Ever since the first of our forebears figured out that you could assign meaning to the sounds you can make with your mouth, we've been pretty much talking nonstop. And the thousands of different ways we've come up with to communicate with each other through language is one of the most fascinating aspects of human culture.

As language expert Jerome Rothenberg (an Encinitas resident and local treasure, by the way) has pointed out, the language you speak shapes your perception of life; the words available to you to describe your life affect the way you experience it.

"One Thousand Languages: Living, Endangered and Lost," edited by Peter K. Austin, is a new reference book from the University of California Press that takes a look at about 1,000 of the nearly 7,000 languages that are spoken on Earth, and does so in a fun, highly illustrated manner reminiscent of the old Time-Life book series on aviation, science and World War II.

There are charts and photos and comparisons of counting from one to 10 in different languages; samples of writing; and a quick overview of a language: where it is spoken, by whom, and to what other languages it is related.

Why only 1,000 languages? Most of the world's languages today are spoken by diminishing communities of traditional cultures, a few hundred or a few thousand people – and these languages are under-documented or soon to be lost, because only a few elders still speak them on a daily basis.

Still, a thousand languages is nothing to sneeze at. There are tons of languages included here that few of us have heard of. Azeri, for instance, is spoken by 24 million people in Iran, Turkey and Armenia. It's closely related to Turkish and Turkmen. Gujarati is spoken by 47 million people in western India.

The book is organized by geography, with the first chapter addressing the current global languages of Mandarin, English, Spanish, Hindi, Russian, Bengali, Arabic, Portuguese, Japanese, German and French. From there, the book moves across Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas, before concluding with endangered languages (Irish, for instance, or Tlingit in Alaska) and extinct languages (Sanskrit, Latin).

While not by any means a comprehensive approach to any of the languages examined, it's a superb introduction to the state of linguistic variety in the world, and a good starting point for exploring any of the languages spoken today.