Babel: Around the World in Twenty Languages, by Gaston Dorren

Back in 2016 I enjoyed Dorren's Lingo a lot, so when I saw he'd written another book about the intricacies and quirks of world languages, I jumped on it.

If you take the 20 most-spoken languages in the world (by mother tongue), you cover just about half of the world's population.  If you learned all of them, you could communicate with most of the world, since lots of these are spoken as second/third/etc. languages.  So why not take a look at the top 20 and see which ones are what ones and what ones are who?

As in Lingo, each chapter covers one language -- he gives some basic statistics at the start, and then dives into whatever aspect of each language tickles his fancy.   He starts with #20, the smallest of the top, and the chapters are therefore numbered 20 - 1 instead of 1 - 20.  #20 is Vietnamese, which is a fiendishly difficult language if you are not Vietnamese, and Dorren knows this for sure because he studied it seriously for a good long time.

I found out a thing I didn't know, which is that Korean and Japanese are both linguistic orphans, with not much in the way of living language cousins.   I did know that Tamil is a language that's been tightly intertwined with nationalism, but I didn't know just how tightly. 

The chapter on Turkish was fascinating for its discourse on the history of Turkish language reform.  Ataturk, you see, wanted to make Turkish more purely Turkish, but the effacement of loan-words from Arabic and Persian, replaced with ancient Turkish root words dug up for new usage, went so far that 'reformed' Turkish was practically incomprehensible.  It was a relief when somebody went so far as to announce that Turkish was the human ur-language that all other languages were based on -- this allowed everybody to go back to the loan words they were used to and not worry about language purity.  It also illuminated for me a bit in a book I read some months ago, The Possessed, in which the Turkish author is bemused by her elderly relatives who insist that all other languages are related to Turkish.  Now I know why!

French, on the other hand, has insisted on language purity for a few hundred years.  Just what is linguistic purity anyway, and is there a point to it?  The more I read this book, the more pointless it seemed, and it's not like I was a fan before.

Meditations on language and power criss-cross the chapters.  Javanese is not popular, because it has all these variations depending on your social status (which I had to look up when I first tackled Indonesian literature).  Malay, however, has become a lingua franca over a large area precisely because it lacks those variations, and because it has successfully stayed out of nationalism.

Is Hindi/Urdu one language written two ways, or two different languages?  Depends who you ask.

There is a lot about Mandarin, of course, and a special bonus chapter on the Japanese writing system and its relation to the Chinese writing system.

Yep, I had a lot of fun with this one.  If I had the time and ability, I'd learn lots of languages myself!  I wish I could speak and read Russian and Hindi, in particular.


  1. I think I like reading about languages more than studying them ... if I had the time and energy though, I would like to try to learn some more exotic ones. Russian and Hindi yes, also Mandarin and Arabic. What a different headspace!

  2. I read his Lingo, too, and quite liked it. I hadn't heard about this one--I'll have to hunt it up. Sounds like fun. Thanks!


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