Review: Worlds Before Adam by Martin Rudwick

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  • period. Hittite, Sanskrit and Latin were once living languages of great civilisations. If history is anything to go by, English, Arabic and Chinese will eventually disappear in their turn and be replaced by other languages.

    Endangered and extinct languages take up only the last two sections of the book. The previous nine are devoted to documenting the main features linguistic, political and cultural of the most significant of the worlds languages. World languages such as Mandarin Chinese (1055 million speakers), English (760 million) or Hindi (490 million) get double-page spreads; other major languages, such as Italian or Tamil, get single pages; the rest, such as Cantonese or Ndebele, are confined to a half- or quarter-pages. For each region,

    PEN

    NY

    TWEE

    DIE

    /PAN

    OS

    1000 Languages: The worldwide history of living and lost tongues edited by Peter K. Austin, Thames & Hudson, 19.95, ISBN 9780500514115

    THERE are estimated to be 6900 languages spoken in the world today. By the end of this century, 90 per cent may have disappeared entirely, according to 1000 Languages, an authoritative and copiously illustrated global survey edited by Peter Austin , director of the Endangered Languages Academic Programme at Londons School of Oriental and African Studies, with contributions from 13 academic linguists based in Europe, the US and Australia.

    If this sounds alarmist, think of the once well-established languages that are now extinct. Ancient Egyptian was spoken, and written in hieroglyphs, for three millennia. Sumerian, Akkadian and Babylonian were spoken, and written in cuneiform, for a similar

    there are clear and much-needed maps of language families.

    The link between politics and language is present throughout. Austin quotes a joke by Max Weinrich, a specialist in Yiddish, that a language is a dialect with an army and navy. Thus Danish, Swedish and Norwegian are treated as three separate languages, belonging to three countries, while Chinese is counted as one language, even though speakers of the Mandarin and Cantonese dialects cannot understand each other. For the same reason, Serbo-Croat, the language of the former Yugoslavia, is now divided into Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian.

    Often, the problem of classification lies with linguists rather than politicians or native speakers especially in Africa, a hotspot of linguistic diversity. And when it comes to Australia, some researchers believe they can demonstrate that all the Aboriginal languages belong to a single family, while others think there are 26 different groupings.

    The counting words for the numbers 1 to 10 are specified for major languages, providing an intriguing list of similarities and disparities. So are examples of loan words, such as English safari from the Swahili for journey, or Japanese odoburu from the French hors doeuvre. The Mandarin word for www is wanweiwang, a loan translation meaning literally 10,000 connections net.

    With so much information packed into a relatively short book (Andrew Dalbys equivalent Dictionary of Languages for the general reader runs to 700 pages even with no photographs), there are inevitably some slips. For instance, the Etruscans whose script was used by the Romans borrowed their script from the Greek alphabet, not from the Phoenician. Overall, however, 1000 Languages is an accessible and fascinating reference source, ideal for polyglot dipping.

    Andrew Robinson is the author of Lost Languages and The Story of Writing

    Linguists argue over whether Aboriginal languages share a common origin

    Carbon fixationThe Carbon Age by Eric Roston, Walker & Company, $25.95, ISBN 9780802715579Reviewed by Fred Pearce

    CARBON is the fourth most abundant element in the universe, though strangely it is relatively scarce on Earth. But our

    world is built on it and may die of it, too. This is the story of lifes core element, from the Carboniferous era to our carbon footprint, and of how we have industrialised the carbon cycle, flushing carbon accumulated by geological processes over millions of years back into the atmosphere in the past century. Roston fits in discourses on bulletproof vests, buckyballs and more, quoting everyone from Hippocrates to Yoko Ono. Carbon neutral it isnt.

    Deep time storyWorlds Before Adam by Martin Rudwick, University of Chicago Press, $49, ISBN 9780226731285Reviewed by Douglas Palmer

    WE TAKE for granted that Earth has a deep history divided into eras such as the Mesozoic, with its monstrous

    dinosaurs and catastrophic meteoroid impacts. But when and how was this geohistorical narrative established? This book, the sequel to Bursting the Limits of Time (2005), is a masterly exploration of the 19th-century roots of this particular scientific revolution. Here Rudwick shows how scientists such as Georges Cuvier, William Buckland and Charles Lyell first revealed and then reconstructed a narrative for the Earth based on direct observation of rocks and fossils.

    Bookends

    THE CRUMBLING TOWER OF BABELFor anyone fascinated by the diversity of the worlds rapidly vanishing languages, heres an account to relish, says Andrew Robinson

    www.newscientist.com 21 June 2008 | NewScientist | 55

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