Book Review: Babel: Around the World in 20 Languages, by Gaston Dorren • Glam Adelaide

Book Review: Babel: Around the World in 20 Languages, by Gaston Dorren

A quirky language-lovers tour of the twenty most-spoken languages in the world.

Did you know you could travel the world and communicate competently if you were proficient in just four languages?

Did you know you could travel the world and communicate competently (without needing help from an interpreter) if you were proficient in just four languages? These languages – English, Mandarin, Spanish and Hindi-Urdu – are now so widely understood across the globe that their mastery ensures fairly smooth sailing for travellers.

In Babel, Netherlands-based journalist and linguist Gaston Dorren investigates these and the other lingua francas that make up the ‘20 mightiest languages of our time’. Dorren is the author of Lingo, the bestselling book on European languages (Profile, 2014) and is a regular contributor to the linguistics magazine Onze Taal. He is multilingual, speaking Dutch, Limburgish, English, German and Spanish, and reading French, Afrikaans, Frisian, Portuguese, Italian, Catalan, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Luxembourgish and Esperanto. He added Thai to his list of spoken languages during the writing of Babel and also had a crack at learning Vietnamese—not an easy task, even with his linguistic capabilities. In this latest publication he ‘travels, observes and eavesdrops on the wide world of large languages: the letters and sounds, the cultures and conflicts, the deliberate reforms and the unplanned changes’.

While it’s commonly estimated that there are 6,000 languages currently spoken and signed, the languages featured in Babel are the ‘mother tongues of no less than half the population of the world’. Dorren starts by examining the smallest of the 20, moving forward to the largest, allocating a chapter to each to explore not only on the language in general but also one particular feature or issue of that language.

Chapters feature a profile of the language in question, with introductory information on grammar, writing and sounds, linguistic origins and pronunciation (there are sound files available on the author’s website to help build better understanding of this). There’s also an explanation of the author’s methods of citing words, phrases and sentences. The book begins with Vietnamese and ends with English, covering Arabic, Swahili, Russian and others along the way. It makes for absorbing reading, especially if, like me, you only speak one language fluently.

‘Language is such an intimate possession, something that one possesses in the same measure that one is possessed by it. Language is bound up with the foundations of one’s being, with memories and emotions, with the subtle structures of the worlds in which one lives.’ Dorren’s chosen epigraph (by Alok Rai from Hindi Nationalism) sets the scene perfectly for his discussion of the ways our communication is inextricably intertwined with the ways we live our lives.

There’s an introduction to the complexities of learning the correct pronunciation of Chinese characters and why students of Japanese may have an even more difficult time attempting to master writing Kanji. Find out why Portuguese ‘punches above its weight’ and how the world’s largest languages are causing the decline of many of the smaller ones. End pages contain an index and information about sources and further reading. Other features include footnotes, photos and tables.

Babel is a book that can be read cover to cover or can be dipped into, beginning with the chapters that explore the languages the reader has the greatest connections with. Dorren’s conversational style helps transmit the facts and detail without bogging the reader down, and the result is an accessible and highly entertaining examination of the connections between languages, as well as the many differences.

Reviewed by Jo Vabolis
Twitter: @JoVabolis

Distributed by: Allen and Unwin
Released: December 2018
RRP: $29.99

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