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Pilgrim in the Palace of Words
A Journey Through the 6,000 Languages of Earth
By Glenn Dixon
Dundurn Press, 350 pages, $25
This is a travel book with a hook.
It's as much a restless search for language as for place or landscape. And that unusual angle gives it a fresh point of view.
But its tackling how culture is reflected in the underlying structures, and idiosyncrasies, of a particular language is at once its strength and its weakness.
Author Glenn Dixon is a Calgary-based travel writer and language consultant who has a master's degree in socio-linguistics. This is his first book.
Dixon allows that there are approximately 6,000 languages still spoken on the planet today, down from as many as 15,000 before written language appeared.
And that trend continues to spiral downward.
"[I]t is estimated," he writes, "that only 500 will be left by the year 2100, and even then only about 20 will be in solid shape. The rest will have simply withered away."
Drawing on his academic credentials, Dixon embarked on a linguistics-laced odyssey that took him across Asia, the South Pacific and good chunks of South, Central and North America.
"Languages, as one philosopher said, are the Houses of Being," he writes. "And I wanted to journey to these houses.
"I wanted to strut up their sidewalks. I wanted to knock on their doors and peek in their windows. I wanted to see what they were hiding in their basements ... even if it meant a little bit of trouble."
And so he did, with both great and not-so-great results.
Journeys to Machu Picchu in Peru, the Jordanian desert, the Dalai Lama's palace in Tibet, the Amazon rainforest, Samoa, Jerusalem, Angkor Wat, the Mayan ruins of Belize and Guatemala and B.C.'s Queen Charlotte Islands (to encounter the Haida of touristy totem-pole fame) — to cite a few of Dixon's many stops — have all been written about before, though likely not as refracted through the prism of linguistics.
Dixon is a lucid writer, engaging guide and expert language maven. Yet occasionally the whole isn't greater than the sum of its parts.
Sometimes his accounts flag as non-fiction storytelling. They fail to grab, or hold, the reader's attention, especially when Dixon over-explains linguistic terminology.
His encounter with the indigenous Achuar people of the Amazon River Basin, a people only "discovered" by the West in the 1970s, is a case in point. An otherwise intriguing tale of a jungle journey gets waylaid a couple of times by academic disquisitions that go on too long.
Yet at other times, when he warms to his subject, or his adventures, his writing sings.
Witness this succinct, yet visually and aurally bang on, description of a scuba dive off Belize's barrier reef, just before a spooky encounter with a reef shark:
"Underneath me great fans of coral waved in the currents, and the brain coral, lumpy bits of underwater oatmeal, shimmered with tiny neon fish. My own silver bubbles percolated toward the surface, and the deep intake and exhalations of my regulator formed a Darth Vader soundtrack."
Aside from Dixon's tendency to sometimes blather on a bit much about the minutiae of a language, Pilgrim in the Palace of Words works as classic travel literature.
As a bonus, it's also a fascinating take on how languages mould and inform societies.
Douglas J. Johnston is a Winnipeg lawyer and writer.