“Languages are like solar systems,” writes Julie Sedivy in this rich meditation on a life lived travelling through, dwelling in and studying languages. “They are… like proteins, or spider webs; they are elegantly structured objects that obey their own internal logics, that absorb randomness and variation in intricate and patterned ways.” A graceful blend of personal memoir with the author’s scholarly field of psycholinguistics, Memory Speaks offers generalist readers an opportunity to appreciate the marvellous complexity of human language—an ancient technology that our digital age’s most hyped AI, telematics and algorithms have yet to match. You don’t need to be an academic linguaphile—or even an everyday Wordle enthusiast—to reap rewards from this provocative book.
Over six chapters Sedivy approaches her subject through her own linguistic autobiography, recounting her journey as an immigrant whose arrival in Canada from Czechoslovakia at the age of 6 marks the beginning of the end of her fluency in her heritage language, a loss in due course sealed by the death of her Czech-loving father. This personal story of loss and (eventual) language reclamation seeds the ground for the author’s consideration of broader theoretical questions, as she extrapolates from individual experience (and makes distinctions when necessary) by drawing on her vast knowledge of linguistics. The opening chapter, “Death,” for example, recalls the attrition of the author’s Czech language as an evocative prelude to explore the death of languages and loss of linguistic diversity globally: what that trend entails, why it’s happening and what languages reveal about us.
This strategy allows Sedivy to establish an intimate rapport with her readers while also emphasizing one of the book’s recurrent themes: namely, the deeply emotional bonds attached to language(s) as an index of personal and national/ethnic identity—and the effects of their rupture or atrophy over time. As our tour guide, Sedivy leads us through varied, often contentious, terrain (is bilingual education a burden or an asset for children?), outlining the terms of the debate clearly before weighing in with her own considered positions. Because comparing languages can reveal “the subtly different ways in which a culture fixes its beam of attention on the human experience,” Memory Speaks is full of fascinating facts and insights. The most linguistically diverse place on earth is Papua New Guinea—who knew? In Farsi all pronouns are gender neutral! And English, “the viniest, most invasive of all languages,” persists as an imperialistic global behemoth despite its inherent difficulties. (On this topic Sedivy’s account of the rogue “social life” of the English article the—one of the most notorious free radicals in English grammar usage—is a must read.)
The narrative does occasionally bog down in thickets of research summary that would have benefited from further editing. The author is at her best in tightly focused chapters such as “Home,” which follows her return to Calgary from a period of re-immersion in the Czech Republic, and which sparks in turn “an odyssey of discovery” about “the many languages and cultures belonging to the first inhabitants of this place.” To that end, Sedivy describes her current adventures attempting to learn such Indigenous languages as Stoney Nakoda, Blackfoot and Michif. She does not shy away from the frankly uncomfortable cultural politics of such settler efforts at reconciliation, squarely addressing the ambivalence that many First Nations communities feel about allowing non-natives “access to their language.” Like the Indigenous tongues the author begins to explore at the end, Memory Speaks is a gift that invites attention.
Christine Wiesenthal is a professor in the English and Film Studies department at the University of Alberta.