Book Review: Babel: Around The World In Twenty Languages

Babel: Around The World In Twenty Languages, by Gaston Dorren

This is a deeply interesting book, but it’s not really as diverse as one would think. The author explores the top twenty languages in terms of the number of speakers, and finds that the languages tend to spring from a few locations–European and other colonial languages able to spread their influence far beyond their native speakers and languages in densely populated areas of Asia. The accounts of the languages and the author’s discussion of his own efforts to learn and understand these languages are deeply entertaining and there is a lot to enjoy and appreciate here. It is the author’s idea that the familiarity with these languages will give someone the ability to communicate with the majority of the world, and there are certainly some useful languages here, as well as languages which are known by a lot of people who live in densely populated but not very large areas. What makes a language? Why are some languages so much harder than others? At least some of those questions are explored here, and the issue of dialect continua is also dealt with thoughtfully and well in such a way that at least some of the chapters deal with the subject in some detail.

This book is organized by languages in reverse order. And in looking at this book, it is interesting that the author begins with Vietnamese, which presents special challenges to the author. Over the course of the 350 pages or so of the book, we see a discussion of the history of languages and their spread and the controversies involving them. With Korean the author explores the relationship between sound and word meaning. After that Tamil presents a discussion about matters of life and death. Turkish provides the author with a change to talk about the difficulty of massive and sudden language change. Javanese provides a look at the problems of talking up and down, and how it is that a language spoken by nearly 100 million people is vulnerable to being lost because of its class issues. Persian allows for a discussion of imperialism in the ancient world and its effects on language. Punjabi provides a discussion of tone and its role in messaging. Japanese (which gets two chapters) discusses the issues of gender as well as how complicated a language’s script can be. Swahili gives a lone example of a successful African language. German is presented as an eccentric in Central Europe. French gives the author more material to discuss its cultural imperialism at home and abroad. Malay is a look at a language that won, for different reasons in different countries, and what that means. Russian provides a fascinating look at what it means to be Indo-European. Portuguese is an underdog tale the author appreciates (and it is a lovely language). Bengali gives the author a chance to talk about the unusual form of the abugida. Arabic gives the author a chance to talk about the mistrust that exists across some cultural boundaries. Hindi-Urdu discusses the divide between two parts of a notable language continuum. Spanish provides the chance to discuss what it means to be. Mandarin gives a look at the mythical Chinese script, and English provides an example of a lingua franca for the present and perhaps future, after which there are sources, acknowledgements, photo credits, and an index.

Can one really solve the linguistic complexities of the world in only twenty languages? No. There are some 6000 languages or so at least, and there are plenty of places in the world where the languages discussed here would not help someone out. That said, knowing these languages would certainly allow one to chat with a substantial percentage of the world’s people no matter where one went. It is likely, for example, that the languages of this book would allow one to travel anywhere within Europe, the Middle East, virtually all of North and South America, and most of Africa and Asia, and probably virtually all of Oceania except for perhaps the more rural areas of Papua New Guinea. That is an impressive haul of abilities and so a hyperpolyglot who has a taste for challenge would be well served to at least develop some familiarity with the languages included here. Indeed, the linguistics challenge of mastering the top twenty languages for near-global domination, along with perhaps adding some of the other languages that would fill in the gaps (Italian, Dutch, Serbo-Croatian, and Amharic come to mind), would be an interesting one and I would be interested in reading more about that kind of linguistic journey over the course of a few entertaining travel books.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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