Life and death of language

11th April 1997 at 01:00
THE ATLAS OF LANGUAGES: THE ORIGIN AND DEVELOPMENT OF LANGUAGES THROUGHOUT THE WORLD Edited by Bernard Comrie, Stephen Matthews and Maria Polinsky Bloomsbury Pounds 25. THE CAMBRIDGE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF LANGUAGE: SECOND EDITION By David Crystal Cambridge Pounds 45 hardback Pounds 19.95 paperback

MODERN ENGLISH: A USER'S GUIDE TO GRAMMAR AND STYLE By Michael Beresford Duckworth Pounds 12.95

Some languages, such as English, can weather change but others are doomed to disappear, discovers Brian Cox

Human language emerg-ed 100,000 years ago, probably in the east of Africa.Today around the world there are thousands of different languages, a veritable tower of Babel. But it is generally agreed that within one hundred years 90 per cent of these languages will no longer be spoken.

This means that rich stores of human thought and culture will be lost. The editors of The Atlas of Languages hope - somewhat optimistically - to slow down the rate at which languages are dying. They want to persuade scholars to study the diverse tongues of the world, and perhaps to encourage native speakers to continue their use.

The Atlas offers a brilliantly illustrated account of the origins and development of languages throughout the world. There are splendid maps, and many striking photographs. The book ends with a wonderful full-page colour photograph of Red Thundercloud, who died in January 1996, and who was the last speaker of the Sioux language, Catawba.

Unfortunately the editors seem unsure what audience they are addressing. The illustrations and short summaries are excellent, and would be attractive to sixthformers. In contrast, the text is often boring and repetitive. Worse still, the editing is shoddy. In the lively foreword, Professor Jean Aitchison says that there are now about 5,000 languages in existence. A few pages later in the text, we are told in large print that there are more than 6,000 tongues spoken around the world. Professor Aitchison says that most people know very little about languages, and even the names are unfamiliar. Faced with a name such as Hopi many English speakers would have a hard time specifying even the continent in which it is spoken. Unfortunately Hopi is not listed in the Index, though it is mentioned in the appropriate chapter.

Between pages 23 and 24 words have been missed out. There are full biographical details of the three main editors, but we are told nothing about the five contributors who write articles about languages in different parts of the world. Their material is useful for reference, but lists of language variations do not make exciting reading.

After such confusions, it's a delight to turn to the new edition of David Crystal's The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language. This should be in every secondary school library. The first edition, published in 1995, was greeted with ecstatic reviews. David Crystal has incorporated new research material, and brought everything up to date. The redesigned second edition is now printed in full colour, the maps have been redrawn and most pictures are new. Crystal has a great facility for explaining language issues with plain good-sense, wit and admirable brevity.

Extra sections include one on the world's endangered languages. Crystal is realistic about the difficulties of preserving dying languages. In New Guinea there are hundreds of languages now spoken by only a few elderly people. They are beyond practical help.

On the other hand some minority languages, such as Welsh, have been successfully revived and developed. The number of Welsh speakers has declined from just under a million in 1900 to around half a million in the 1981 census, but the creation of a Welsh-speaking television channel appears to be keeping this total stable. Whether a minority language survives depends on complex political and social conditions.

Do languages develop dynamically of their own volition or can they be controlled by academics or politicians? Can we successfully interfere with the life and death of languages? Crystal is wonderfully clear and helpful on this very difficult issue. Most older people dislike language change, and want to keep language as it was when they were children. They often think that standards have fallen markedly. This belief is shared by every generation, but, as Crystal explains, language change reflects social change, and is inevitable. There is no evidence that language is in decline.

Schools should develop a greater linguistic awareness and tolerance of change, especially in a multi-ethnic society. But Crystal insists that the parts of language which are changing are tiny, in contrast to the vast, unchanging areas of language. Schools require the knowledge and resources to teach a common standard, while recognising the existence and value of linguistic diversity.

This policy will be very much helped by Michael Beresford's Modern English: a user's guide to grammar and style. The old rules of grammar and style are presented in detail, against their historical background, and nearly all of them are shown to be unsound. But Beresford does not believe that anything goes. He offers a set of coherent principles for speaking and writing good English, the kind that is clear, brief and simple.

Beresford argues that the precepts of grammarians can affect usage. One chapter is devoted to showing how Standard English was changed under scholarly influence, especially in the 17th and 18th centuries. There is nothing unrealistic in striving to improve the living language.

I derived great pleasure from reading Beresford's criticisms of the grammatical shibboleths I was taught at school in the 1940s. He devotes sections to the split infinitive, final prepositions, "shall" and "will", "I" and "me", "due to" and "owing to", "fewer" and "less", redundant adjectives and so on. Anyone who has felt disquiet about such usages should read Beresford's delightfully clear account of what is acceptable. He is committed to plain, sensible English, and his book serves as a model for his own beliefs.

Brian Cox is chairman of the North West Arts Board and a member of the Arts Council. He chaired the National Curriculum English Working Group that reported in 1989. He has just edited African Writers, published by Scribner's

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