The World Until Yesterday

diamondI have mentioned him before, but he merits a post to himself. Although not a linguist (but covering multiple other academic fields), Jared Diamond’s latest book is worth reading for many reasons, one of which is his ‘Speaking in Many Tongues’ chapter on language variation and evolution. In ‘The World Until Yesterday’, Diamond traces past societal (and present tribal) customs, covering themes like conflict, child rearing, religion, language and health, suggesting lessons that can be learnt from them and applied to our large, industrial societies.

Concerning language, Diamond covers such fascinating questions as: why do some areas of the world harbour very few and others a great many different languages? how does climate, latitude, biological productivity, ecological diversity and tribal lifestyle affect language density and diversity? what role do political organisation, historical events and state expansion have to play?

Through his examination of various tribal groups all over the world, Diamond shows us that multilingualism has always been the norm rather than the exception, and covers some of the benefits of bilingualism I spoke of before. Finally, he goes into the issue of language death, explaining how, with the development of modern societies, many languages are disappearing, and argues for their protection and preservation.