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Chris Melnick: Reads &Watches

Sept 1,2022

[Editor's note: Chris Melnick is the Executive Director of Share the Magic Book Program, which is a federally registered charity that distributes books, from books for babies to adults, fiction and non-fiction to underserved communities in Manitoba.  To date, Share the Magic has given away over 630,000 books at an estimated value of over $4.2 million. You can follow Share the Magic on Facebook by searching "Share the Magic Book Program"]



Language and languages fascinate me.  I am amazed that so many different sounds emanating from throats, largely due to vocal cords, can have the same meaning, and that the brain can correctly interpret the meaning of those sounds.   For example, every language has the ability to express love, thanks, compassion and other such emotions.


       A quick Internet search told me that:


  • As you read this column, there are over 7,000 living languages currently being spoken in the world.


  • The most commonly spoken language in the world is English – combining English as both first and second language speakers at 1.452 billion people.


  • Asia has roughly 2300 languages, followed by Africa with roughly 2000 languages


  • Papua New Guinea is the most linguistically diverse country in the world with over 840 languages.



  • Of the 7,000 plus languages currently being spoken, the Language Conservancy, https://languageconservancy/language/loss believes that about 2,900 or 41% are endangered. At current rates, about 90% of all languages will become extinct in the next 100 years.


       This sombering prediction tells us that languages are living things, which must be nurtured and often protected if they are to survive.  They help define the culture in which they are spoken, and help non-speakers of particular languages understand the speaker’s way of viewing their culture and the world at large.


       With those thoughts in mind, I was happy to discover Native tongues by Charles Berlitz, grandson of Maximillian Berlitz, the founder of the Berlitz Language Schools.  Published in 1982, not found at the Winnipeg Public Library, some of the commentary is clearly dated and current trends, such as computer and Internet jargon are predicted but missing.


  This book was a fun read, providing snippets of information about language, such as:


  • German almost became the official language of the United States, but lost to English by one vote at the Continental Congress, convened in Philadelphia during the American Revolution – one ponders the implications had the German language won by one vote!


  • Some words have survived from Neolithic times and are spoken in some languages today. In Basque, a very difficult language to learn, the word for “knife” is a compound that translates as “the stone that cuts” and “ceiling” literally means “roof of the cave”.


  • Due to the history of invasion and conflict between today’s England and France, almost all polysyllabic words in English are of French-Latin origin and one syllable words come from Anglo-Saxon


  • There are several languages in Southern Africa which include “clicks” of the tongue as part of the spoken word.


  • I was surprised and pleased to find our provincial name, Manitoba, getting special recognition, deriving from the Aboriginal name of the Great Spirit - Manitou


  • I’ll end this portion of the column be saying that the Hawaiian greeting for both hello and good-bye “Aloha”, means love. So “Aloha”!


       Although Native Tongues cannot be borrowed from Winnipeg Public Library, the following titles, which I have not yet read, promise to be interesting reads and can be borrowed:


How you say it: Why do you talk that way

Author:  Katherine Kinzler

Call number:   302.224 KINZLER 2020

Format:   Book


A death in the rainforest: How a language and way of life came to an end in Papua New Guinea

Author:   Don Kulick

Call number:   305.800995 KULICK 2019

Format:   Book


The Secret life of language: Discover the origins of global communication

Author: Simon Pulleyn

Call number:   417.7 PULLEYN 2018

Format:   Book


Babel:  Around the world in twenty languages

Author:  Gaston Dorren

Call number:   409 DORREN 2018

Format:  Book


Words on the move:  Why English can’t and won’t sit still (like, literally)

Author:  John H. McWhorter

Call number:  417.7 McWhorter 2016

Format:   Book


The Crossword century: 100 years of witty wordplay, ingenious puzzles and linguistic mischief

Author:  Alan Connor

Call number:  793.732 CON 2014

Format:   Book

       I could not resist including the description of this book:  A British comic writer at The Guardian explores the history of the crossword puzzle, which made its debut in 1913 and went from being considered a menace to productivity to being used to recruit codebreakers by the military.



And now for this month’s Yiddish proverb:


Di tsung iz di feder fun hartsen.


The tongue is the pen of the heart.

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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

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