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The stories behind the world’s most widely used languages: Babel reviewed

Word nerds should gain much pleasure from Babel: Around the World in 20 Languages. It takes much the same approach as author Gaston Dorren’s previous book, Lingo, which investigated 60 European languages and dialects by way of short, witty, informative chapters. Babel covers only 20, but these are the world’s giants, lingua francas spoken by at least 85 million people. Dorren, who is Dutch, guides us through their commonalities and distinctions, quirks and singularities, smuggling in a Wikipedia’s worth of cultural history and plainly explained linguistics.

You feel in safe hands. His deep reading on the languages, their origins and writing systems is evident. He’s also something of a polyglot, speaking six languages and reading many more. He tried, and mostly failed, to learn Vietnamese while writing Babel.

Even though the chapters do not linger, Dorren packs in the facts, both weighty and fascinatingly frivolous. Such as how language can be used for nationalistic purposes, and why European languages are still being used by former colonies. That in the late 18th century, nearly one in three Portuguese emigrated to Brazil, ensuring that Brazilians’ nickname for its language’s homeland is now “the little country”. That Japanese has genderlects, women speaking a markedly different variety of the language from men. That if you’re tempted to learn the Hmong language of Southeast Asia, you should know that some dialects employ 12 tones, perhaps even more. Or how the Grass-Mud Horse Lexicon helps the dissent-minded keep ahead of China’s censors.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

The whole of Babel ultimately proves much more than the sum of its parts: presenting an overview of the world’s tongues that a more standardly structured account might have failed to achieve. You may find yourself agreeing with Dorren’s view that English, the monster that ate the world, is likely to eventually split into mutually unintelligible regional varieties, as Latin did, with a rump hanging on to what’s considered standard English, and perhaps with a simplified Globish that most can understand. Towers of Babel inevitably fall, but something mighty and perhaps even great always rises in their place.

Babel: Around the World in 20 Languages, by Gaston Dorren (Profile Books, $32.99)

This article was first published in the March 9, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.