A Week in Books

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The Independent Culture

August always brings a torrent of new writing from Scotland and the Scottish diaspora. At the Edinburgh Book Festival, meanwhile, a showcase for national literature runs through next week, with home-grown talent stretching from Jackie Kay to Irvine Welsh. But one of the events I shall most look forward to stars an adoptive Welshman. David Crystal - the most charismatic lexicographer since Dr Johnson - will discuss "writing the obituary of languages".

August always brings a torrent of new writing from Scotland and the Scottish diaspora. At the Edinburgh Book Festival, meanwhile, a showcase for national literature runs through next week, with home-grown talent stretching from Jackie Kay to Irvine Welsh. But one of the events I shall most look forward to stars an adoptive Welshman. David Crystal - the most charismatic lexicographer since Dr Johnson - will discuss "writing the obituary of languages".

To catch his drift, consider the local case of Scotland. The country can boast not one, but three indigenous languages. English will take care of itself (it always does). Scots still flourishes in plenty of habitats: after all, it forms an integral part of the most famous British novel of the past decade ( Trainspotting).

Yet Gaelic, that venerable and vulnerable tongue, has fewer than 50,000 native speakers left. According to criteria used in David Crystal's book Language Death (Cambridge University Press, £12.95), Scots Gaelic certainly counts as an endangered tongue. And, around the world, it has thousands of much weaker brethren. Crystal calculates that, of the 6,000 or so current living languages, more than 3,000 will become extinct in the present century.

Extinction happens all the time - not so far from home, either. Crystal's rousing manifesto for linguistic conservation is partnered by another splendid new work on the subject: Vanishing Voices by Daniel Nettle and Suzanne Romaine (Oxford University Press, £19.99). This reminds us that the last speaker of Manx, Ned Maddrell, died in 1974.

The central strategy of both books is to hitch the fate of languages to the rising green politics of biodiversity. Ecologists often tell us that some unknown rainforest plant may hold the secret of future medical advances. These books show that a unique knowledge of the natural or social world can reside in threatened languages.So the plant may be no use if the tongue (and community) that describes it has died.

Crystal delivers an erudite, impassioned call to arms; while Nettle and Romaine stray down the picturesque byways of linguistic research. Each book marks a powerful opening bid in one of the most urgent debates of coming years. I'm sorry if this sounds like havering (a fine Scots word), but anyone remotely bothered by the mass destruction of the planet's cultural heritage should really try to read them both.

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