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The Encyclopedia of Dormant Languages

Monika Jones

2016-02-04

The article reviews the book Encyklopedie spících jazyků (Nový Bor: Cadorini Giorgio – Albis, 2016) compiled by Miroslav Černý.

This great effort at creating an encyclopedia of dormant languages not only gives us a number of entries of languages that could be classified as dormant but the readers not fluent in the study of dormant, dying and dead languages will especially appreciate the Foreword and the chapters preceding the encyclopedic entries themselves explaining in short the basics of this issue. The author clearly gave it a deep thought not only to make the topic accessible but also attractive to his readers.

The Foreword explains the reasons of the author for creating such an encyclopedia as well as his sentiments regarding preservation of the multitude of languages that are spoken or were spoken around the world. Černý does not try to sway us on his side towards preservation; he rather presents his opinion without any anticipations of consensus on the part of the reader.

The next chapter (Endangered Languages) deals with the increasing death toll of languages in the modern days. The author himself admits that the numbers regarding the death of languages vary; however, he presents the general agreement of the experts that the speed of this extinction is unprecedented. The difficulties with language preservation are explained and the dubious way the media play in informing the masses about this issue is also discussed.

However, Černý sees a light at the end of the tunnel in the form of linguists (e.g. Fishman, Krauss) who take keen interest in preserving the largest possible variety of languages. At the end of the chapter we can read about the various ways of classification of the living force of languages including the criteria that can be used in these classifications. The third way of classifying the languages, the UNESCO classification, is probably the most interesting here as we are also given the number of languages that fall in each category which at least gives the reader some idea how sad the whole situation is.

In the following chapter the author explains the reason for the term “dormant” when discussing languages that may no longer be used by speakers as their mother tongue. Černý does not appreciate the term “dead language” as for example UNESCO classification calls such languages as he sees such a term as something far too finite. He gives a very persuasive argument for his opinion and presents a reader with examples from history which prove that a language with no speakers may be revived (e.g. Cornish or Hebrew).

This chapter also explains the criteria that were used when choosing which languages should be part of this encyclopedia and which no longer belong to the category of dormant languages as it is understood here by the author, i.e. languages that certain communities associate with their culture but which are not used by these communities as their mother tongues in all walks of life. Finally, the importance of preservation of languages is stressed as well as the fact that this preservation will not happen on its own but will be a result of hard work of dedicated linguists.

In the last chapter before the encyclopedic entries themselves we find out the structure of these entries. We are told which categories were chosen to be presented for the languages, why they were chosen and, on the other hand, why other categories were omitted from the entries. This is a very useful read especially if one wants to benefit from the encyclopedia as such. Without this chapter the entries may seem incomplete, chaotic and in some cases difficult to comprehend.

In sum, it is a very useful reference book for anyone interested in sheer variety that exists among languages. However, it was probably primarily meant for students of general linguistics who can use it as a stepping stone in building their knowledge about the vast language world out there.

[Viewed on 2017-06-26]
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