Uncategorized | November 08, 2005

Language death is a global phenomenon – and has been for millennia – but a global conscience to actually care and do something about it is regrettably recent.” In his book Language Death, linguist David Crystal explores this phenomenon, troubling from the first realization that currently four percent of languages account for 96 percent of people and 25 percent have fewer than 1000 speakers. Language death is not only a concern of spoken language, but also for written literature. For example, only twenty-seven years ago, “Yiddish literature was at a dead end: Israelis had abandoned Yiddish altogether, the new generations of Diaspora Jewry has switched to the local languages and the ultra-Orthodox Jews, the only ones still using Yiddish in their daily lives, shunned secular Yiddish literature.” However, there is hope. In 2003, “Cornell engineers came up with a mathematical model that, for the first time, quantified “language death” and offered strategies for those who want to preserve an endangered language.” And as for Yiddish literature, the “story has a happy ending: Hampshire College is the home of a large book center, which now houses 1.5 million books in Yiddish and has 32,000 members.” The unlikely creation of this center is recounted in Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books, which traces “Aaron Lansky’s travels as he and a team of volunteers crisscrossed America, retrieving Yiddish books from dusty attics, crumbling basements, and dumpsters. And it is a collective love song to brilliant Yiddish writers — from Mendele to Sholem Aleichem to I.B. Singer — and their lasting cultural relevance.”