THE English are said to be notoriously bad at learning languages. They don’t have to, because everyone speaks theirs. Really? Languages connect people and enable them to communicate with each other, and, yes, a substantial proportion of the world does speak English, and yes, English has become a lingua franca in many parts of the world, but it is by no means the only one.
It is this idea of a language adopted as common between speakers whose native languages are different, and often very different, that Gaston Dorren’s new book Babel: Around the world in 20 languages explores. In 20 pen-portraits, Dorren introduces some of the world’s most widely spoken languages, and shows the incredible variety of world-views, as well as lexical, grammatical, and syntactical ingenuity that they represent.
Each language is introduced with a short overview, beginning with the number of native and second-language speakers and the parts of the world where they can be found. He also introduces loan words from other languages, and exports that have found their way into English. Think of words such as Schadenfreude (German), futon (Japanese), or safari (Swahili with Arabic roots).
He expands on this in the chapter on Arabic, often considered the ultimate pièce de résistance for language-learners, with the fascinating “Concise dictionary of our Arabic”: a catalogue of words with Arabic roots which have, often by some circuitous route, found their way into our vocabulary.
ordersabroad.com“Gang” in Indonesia means “alleyway” (from Dutch). A photo from the Wanderlust Diaries blog in Babel
Beginning with his own attempts to learn Vietnamese, he shows that languages — after all, living things spoken by human beings — not only change and develop, but are also impossible to tame or to standardise (although some have tried: see the eloquent chapter on Turkish and Atatürk’s language reforms); and why would anyone want to, anyway?
In a whistle-stop tour “around the world”, we are introduced to tongues as different as Korean, Hindi-Urdu, French, Bengali, and Malay, and, through them, to the people who speak them, and to the way they feel about their language, whether in the attempt to protect linguistic purity or the struggle to simplify.
But readers do not actually need to set out to far-flung parts of the world: many of them can be heard on the streets of London or Leicester. Babel is not only a treat for lovers of language and cultural history, but an invitation to marvel at the variety and difference that can be found in humanity.
Dr Natalie K. Watson is a theologian and writer living in Peterborough.
Babel: Around the world in 20 languages
Profile Books £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50