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Lingo

By: John McWhorter
February 17, 2016

A review of Lingo: Around Europe in Sixty Languages, by Gaston Dorren


t may not be immediately apparent what a trick Gaston Dorren pulls off in Lingo: Around Europe in Sixty Languages. Most people are interested in language, or at least most people say they are, and it’s easy to suppose that one wants to read a book that perhaps discusses a language beginning with each letter of the alphabet. Or, as in the case of this book, settles down for a spell with each of Europe’s languages. One anticipates a smorgasbord.

However, in reality lists can get dull easily. In the ABC format, for example, after Armenian, Burmese, Cherokee and so on, most readers would get weary somewhere around Hopi or Icelandic even if the writer’s capsule descriptions were solid and informative. In fact, those qualities by themselves would be a hindrance—a book about sixty languages needs a light, albeit learned, touch, giving us a reason care about so many separate stories in succession.

Dorren manages the matter delightfully—few language fans will not get to the end of Lingo, an honor in our era of endless distraction from physical print. Dorren has an eye for the engrossing factoid. Did you know that Danish was once spoken on four continents (Europe, Asia, Africa and North America) and only over the past couple of centuries has come to be spoken in an area “just over half the size of Scotland”? Or that Norman French is still spoken in the Channel Islands, left over from French’s hegemony in Britain after the invasion of William the Conqueror?

Of late, more people probably know that the Inuit do not have hundreds of words for snow than suppose that they do, given the insistent counsel of linguists such as Geoffrey Pullum. However, Dorren reveals that Sami—the northern Scandinavian language formerly known as Lappish—actually does have a good twenty snow words. Frisian is recognized as an official regional language in the Netherlands not because of anything rendering it worthier of that status than Low Saxon or Limburgish, other minority languages spoken in the country, but simply to the fact that Frisian speakers actually rioted over their linguistic rights in 1951. The names Lefebvre, Herrero, Ferrari, Kovacs, and Kowalski all translate as what we render in English as the humble “Smith.”

Dorren has a gift for the handy metaphor. Switzerland’s “other” language of its four, Romansch, varies so much from village to village that it can be considered “splinters of a broken pitcher once called Latin.” In Welsh, “fair” is teg, but to say “fair tavern”—which is put as “tavern fair” the way it would be in French or Spanish—you say not tafarn teg but tafarn deg. Sounds at the beginning of words change like that in Welsh quite often for no reason that makes sense now. Dorren fleetly gets across the “Game of Operator” steps that create chaos like this over time in a language—it started as tabarna teka, which came out tabarna dega with the d when said fast, and then the -a’s dropped off of both words and left tafarn deg. Dorren sums this up as “the d, having arrived at high tide, was left stranded when the tide went out”—teachers of linguistics could take a page from explanations like this. Similar is how Dorren handles Galician, spoken in the corner of Spain that sits above Portugal. Language fans today encounter it as basically a kind of Portuguese spoken in Spain. The explanation: Latin evolved into three vertical stripes of new language on the Iberian Peninsula. Catalan was on the right, Spanish in the middle, and Galician on the left. The bottom three-quarters of the Galician stripe became Portugal, and hence its language “Portuguese,” leaving “Galician” as the small part of Spain where what we now know as Portuguese is spoken.

Dorren isn’t afraid to level some refreshingly tart judgments. Indeed, the spelling in Celtic languages like Welsh and Scots Gaelic is so eccentric and superannuated (almost as bad as English’s!)—with cidhe “key” in Scots Gaelic pronounced simply “key”—that Dorren praises young texters who are undoing these spellings such that an-diugh “today” becomes n ju, which is how the word actually sounds. Or, as a geeky teen I taught myself some Esperanto, endlessly vaunted as having only 16 rules. I recall actually finding the Latin-like verbal system rather hard to wrap my head around. Dorren is correct that Esperanto, supposedly so eminently user-friendly, reproduces some of European languages’ trickiest features, creator Ludwig Zamenhof having innocently supposed such things to be “normal.” Chinese people must find Esperanto rather bizarre, for example, with its definite article, object-marking suffix, elaborate system of tenses, and other things so many of the world’s languages do without.

Dorren is also a wit. It serves him well in his proposal of “Slogarian” in place of actual Slavic languages which are notoriously difficult for foreigners. Slogarian would combine Slovak, which has unusually easy verb conjugation for a Slavic language, and Bulgarian which has shed the difficult noun declensions of the other Slavic languages. As someone for whom Russian would appear to be a lifelong and only semi-successful project, I’m all for Slogarian.

However, some readers may not always share Dorren’s sense of humor. Dorren writes of the European languages as if he were gossiping about his crazy bunch of friends, and certainly means no offense. However, I suspect that speakers of the threatened, obscure language Ladin might not cotton to their language being deemed “hopeless” in that “every tiny village has a few hundred speakers who fully understand only each other.” This, after all, is the normal situation of unwritten languages worldwide, unfettered by standardization on the page. Similarly, Dorren declares “a conversation in Spanish is akin to a shoot-out: every word sounds like a bullet, every sentence a burst of gunfire.” He means it affectionately, but not all speakers will appreciate the phraseology, nor will all Germans enjoy the idea that the language “was a victim of the war instigated by its own speakers.” The title of Dorren’s chapter on Italian is so nervy that I will refrain from even repeating it here, but some women will not be amused.

Overall, however, Dorren is a dependably entertaining and erudite tour guide. In a book requiring the author to write something interesting about every single one of dozens of languages, the occasional weak link is inevitable, but there are surprisingly few in Lingo. A rare exception is the Portuguese entry focusing on the fact that chegar “to arrive” is derived from the Latin plicare “to fold,” in reference to sailors folding their sails upon getting to shore. That’s neat (as are the many etymologies Dorren provides throughout) but not exactly informative about a richly documented, international language like Portuguese. In a rare outright flub, Dorren helps propagate the idea that Yiddish is a “dying” language, as in “Communities where Yiddish is the language of everyday life and where parents transfer it to their children as a matter of course are very rare.” However, such communities are less rare than self-segregating: 150,000 people are speaking Yiddish at home as I write, as well as about 20,000 more in Canada. There are countless languages worldwide spoken by only some dozens of people or even fewer, to whom the idea would sound peculiar that a language is threatened when spoken in the home by enough people to populate a medium-sized city.

Overall, however, Lingo scratches an itch. Readers will be happy to learn some fascinating bits about a copious, but processible, number of languages, in a book that steers beautifully clear of lists, needless arcana, and pedantry while still leaving you feeling properly educated. Coach traces to coach builders in the Hungarian town of Kocs—now there’s one to pop out at parties. Lingo is replete with that kind of thing—I suspect it will be shared widely for a long time.