Abley has a point about minority languages being worth saving. The problem to me is that he’s making the wrong argument for it.
His angle on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis seems wrong. (Though I don’t know what the latest research is,) There’s doesn’t seem to be much evidence to support it in its strongest senses. So what’s the big deal? Abley repeatedly makes the point that when we lose a language, we literally lose a way of thinking. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem so according to research, though subjectively it does seem so.
He also tries to make a correlation between a language taking on foreign words and expressions and its safety among the land of the living. Au contraire! It makes a language richer to broaden its base. While I wouldn’t suggest that English isn’t a juggernaut that infiltrates the most isolated parts of the world, English words and idioms in a language isn’t prima facie evidence that they’re killing the invaded tougue. Enough. I’m getting a bit of schadenfreude from commenting on the foibles of that idea.
For the record, the previous paragraph had words either directly brought over from or naturalized to English from: Latin, prima facie; French, au contraire; German, schadenfreude; Greek, isolated; Hindi, juggernaut; Norse, they. So clearly this tendency for languages to accrete foreign words isn’t a necessary precondition for demise.
Except that he’s right. Language is a cultural thing. Answer this: Can a person be culturally Russian and not speak Russian? That idea is almost preposterous. Sure you can be of Russian heritage or live in Russia and not speak Russian, but to identify as ethnically Russian? Similarly it is difficult to conceive of French culture without the French language. But what about being Welsh? Can you be culturally and ethnically Welsh without speaking Welsh? Seemingly the answer to that is yes. What do we lose by having Welsh people who speak nothing but English? This is where the book was interesting. He explored exactly some of those facets of minority languages, and this is why I unabashedly recommend this book. He explored the challenges minority-language speakers face both with the majority language and the fights within the community over such things as spelling. He looks at how languages are passed from generation to generation.
It isn’t perfect, but Abley makes a point: the world is a poorer place without these small languages.