I cannot imagine anybody who reads this blog not enjoying Gaston Dorren’s book Lingo: Around Europe in 60 Languages. Yes, sixty languages are a lot to cover, but each one is discussed quite briefly, making only one or two points about the language before moving on. The text takes less than 300 pages, so each language gets the equivalent of a blog post’s worth of discussion. You won’t learn Basque this way, but you will learn that Basque does not have subjects and objects (although speakers can still distinguish between the doer and the doee). The book is full of interesting nuggets doled out in witty prose. Most of the chapters end with an example of a word the language has given English speakers: e.g, avalanche comes (via France) from the only language native to Switzerland, Romansh. There are also sample words from the languages, reminding all readers of the richness of tongues. For instance, the German Gönnen means “the exact opposite of envy,” giving English speakers a word to wish for, while the Portuguese have a term, pesamenteira, for a person who comes to a funeral for the free food.
Random facts about language and history are salted throughout the text. It turns out that not all languages have a verb to have. Languages in the Finno-Ugric family (mostly Finnish, Estonian and Hungarian) say something like It is on me when they want to say I have it. Similarly, on the island of Manx between Britain and Ireland, folks say something that translates (roughly) as It is at me. Alone, these facts and quick chapters would make the book a great one to stick in the bathroom as an occasional read. What makes it more than that are the recurring themes that turn the book into a unit. Some of the themes are grammatical, like the nuggets about articles (you know, words like the, a and an). Years ago I read a funny novel in which a Russian was trying to learn English and was being driven mad by the pointless distinction English grammar made between a book and the book. Why, the enraged man wondered, can’t you just say give me book? I laughted then and I still enjoy thinking about articles, and Dorren’s book offers steady noshing: The original Indo-European tongue did not have articles, but they have developed independently in many languages. In the Balkan languages (e.g., Macedonian, Bulgarian, Romanian, Albanian) articles have emerged as suffixes stuck onto the end of words, so instead of saying the book a Romanian would say the equivalent of bookthe. Basque does not use suffix articles, but does place them after the word, saying the equivalent of book the. Apart from their Balkan strain, most Slavic languages have not evolved articles, but some are in the process of doing so right now. Czech and Polish speakers will often say their multi-consonanted versions of one book or that book. This process repeats the way the Latin that (ille) began its transition to Romance language words like le, il, el etc. while the Latin one (unum) went on to become une, uno etc. One Slavic language that I absolutely never heard of – Sorbian – is well on its way to full use of articles. They are standard in speech, but not in formal, written Sorbian.
The difference between written and spoken Sorbian brings up another of the book’s recurring themes: linguistic variety. Romansh in Switzerland and Norwegian in Norway are both notable for their many separate strands. Not coincidentally, both languages are spoken by people living in valleys surrounded by high walls. Probably the butterflies vary from valley to valley too. Meanwhile, Icelandic has proven so stable that Icelanders can still read the Sagas of old in the original, and enjoy them. How do English speakers fare when Beowulf is plopped in front of them? And then over in the mountainous Balkans the languages have come together grammatically, but kept their separate vocabularies. It’s a good way of keeping your difference while still being able to talk with your pesky neighbors.
These varieties of language are not corruptions. It is the standard language that has been corrupted. They are the ones that try to squeeze out the variety—laughing at the yokels who say y’all or pronounce nuclear as nukuler. The benefit of that standardization, however, is strong. You can converse with people over a wide area. Russian is Russian in Moscow and Vladivostok, so when a tsar sends you to Siberia you can still talk to your jailers. That diversity in unity is a common idea across the whole book: on the Iberian peninsula you’ve got Spanish, Portuguese, Galician, Catalonian, and Basque. Each is distinct, but only Basque absolutely bars one’s neighbors from getting the gist of one’s speech. Up north you’ve got Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish and apparently a trio of speakers representing each language could enjoy themselves together in a café. Then there is English, the language whose sounds cannot be guessed from the spelling and whose prepositions are enough to drive any non-native speaker mad, but which has still managed to make itself so universal I can blog to the whole world with it.