Saturday, December 5, 2015

The Power of Babel

Pondering the marvels of Latvian, Cornish, Gagauz, Dalmatian and Welsh.

A railway sign for the Welsh town (nicknamed Llanfair PG) that bears the longest place name in Europe.ENLARGE
A railway sign for the Welsh town (nicknamed Llanfair PG) that bears the longest place name in Europe. PHOTO: TK
‘English is much like Chinese,” claims Gaston Dorren. The similarities aren’t immediately obvious, but Mr. Dorren argues that in both languages “words on the page reveal little about what they are going to sound like.” Moreover, a large part of the world’s population finds English and Chinese hard to pronounce. These aren’t really grounds for asserting their close resemblance, but Mr. Dorren, a proudly polyglot Dutch journalist, enjoys making outlandish statements, and there are quite a few of them in “Lingo,” his idiosyncratic tour of European languages. On publication in Britain last year, the book was billed as a “language spotter’s guide to Europe.” It now has a different subtitle: “Around Europe in Sixty Languages.”


By Gaston Dorren
Atlantic Monthly Press, 303 pages, $25
Sixty? Yes, your eyes don’t deceive you, for Mr. Dorren’s language tourism takes in not just the familiar monuments of English, French, Spanish and German but also the unsung marvels of Latvian, Cornish and Luxembourgish. If these seem obscure, how about Dalmatian? Even at its peak, this language, mainly used in what is today Croatia, had only 50,000 speakers. It abruptly disappeared in 1898 when the last of them, Tuone Udaina, was blown up by a landmine on the Adriatic island of Krk.
The website lists 286 languages currently spoken in Europe (101 of which are admittedly either “in trouble” or dying), so Mr. Dorren could have ventured even farther into the linguistic backwoods. Yet there is plenty here for him to get his teeth into, and this is perforce a brisk and breezy tour, “in no sense an encyclopedia,” as he concedes.
As he zigzags around Europe, Mr. Dorren typically focuses on a single quirk of a language: the “trickiness” of Polish surnames or the “precision and concision” of the Ukrainian system of pronouns. Sometimes his perspective widens: When dealing with the relative stability of Icelandic over time, he ponders the obstacles to language change—e.g., geographical isolation and “close-knit networks”—and his discussion of sign languages (note the plural) is a refreshing rejoinder to the common misconception that there is just one universal sign language.
Mr. Dorren doesn’t seek to develop a bold argument. Instead this is one of those books—now abundant—that bulge with linguistic trivia. Fortunately, he has an eye for genuinely surprising detail. He is also, for the most part, a witty commentator, though occasionally his efforts to be amusing fall flat, as when he reveals that the very mention of Gagauz, a language mainly used in Moldova, puts him in mind of Lady Gaga. He describes French as having “something of a mother fixation,” inasmuch as it is perpetually “clutching at the skirt of . . . Latin,” and he observes that the similarity of Slavic languages means that “if you know one of them, you know a whole bunch—it’s the linguistic equivalent of a bargain offer.”
This bundling together of Slavic languages is simplistic. A Bulgarian may find it easy to understand Macedonian, but a Pole won’t readily understand Serbo-Croatian, and a Slovenian doesn’t understand much Czech (though a Slovakian [JB - Slovak (sometimes incorrectly Slovakian)] will understand plenty).
Mr. Dorren is on firmer ground when he discusses Germanic and Romance languages, and he has some suggestive things to say about English. In a spirit of gentle whimsy, he notes gaps in English vocabulary that could be filled by words from other languages. He likes the Scots noun “sitooterie”: “literally ‘sit-out-ery,’ a place for intimate togetherness, like a sunroom, but also a secluded corner at a party.” In Iceland, which publishes more new books per capita than any other nation, there is a single term—“jólabókaflóð”—for the glut of volumes that appears in the run-up to Christmas. In Portuguese there is a word—“pesamenteiro”—for someone who attends a funeral only in order to snarf the food and drink afterward. But of all the lexical curios that Mr. Dorren has collected, the most useful may be the Slovak “proznovit,” which means “to make someone’s phone ring just once in the hope that they will call back.”
He is less gentle when it comes to condemning English speakers’ poor command of other languages. He is thinking here chiefly of the British, not of Americans. Throughout “Lingo,” Europe is his focus, and for that reason he barely mentions the many people in the Americas who speak European languages. There is only the briefest nod, for instance, to the 400 million people across the Americas who speak Spanish—when he contrasts the way it is articulated in Spain (“every word sounds like a bullet”) with the more sedate intonation of Latin Americans.
Mr. Dorren is right to maintain that Britons lag behind the rest of Europe (and many other nationalities) in multilingualism. Whereas in the U.S. there are more than a few native English speakers who have a good grasp of Spanish, in Britain the ability to say anything more elaborate than “dos cervezas, por favor” makes one appear embarrassingly cosmopolitan. But for Mr. Dorren to accuse the British of “widespread linguistic disability” seems merely provocative. Britons’ problem is complacency about learning other languages rather than a lack of the wherewithal to do so.
Still, the inflated claim that “the attitude of English speakers to foreign languages” is “let’s plunder, not learn them” is a nice opportunity to quote comedian Eddie Izzard’s joke about the startled Brit who exclaims: “Two languages in one head? No one can live at that speed.” Despite its occasional oversimplifications and chapters that are sometimes barely bite-size, Mr. Dorren’s book is a peppy advertisement for the rewards of having several languages in one’s head.

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