Babel, by Gaston Dorren

39027389What makes a language a lingua franca? In Gaston Dorren’s entertaining and enlightening exploration, Babel: Around the World in 20 Languages, it seems to come down to a mishmash of timing, economics, cultural dominance, government policy, and colonization. Dorren looks at the twenty most spoken languages in the world—Vietnamese, Korean, Mandarin, Japanese, Javanese, Indonesian/Malaysian, Bengali, Tamil, Punjabi, Hindi/Urdu, Farsi, Turkish, Arabic, Swahili, Russian, German, French, Portuguese, Spanish, and English*—through historical and linguistic lenses. He touches on what makes them unique and how they came to prominence. He also uses the languages as a springboard to talk about issues of nationalism, oppression, what makes a language “weird” or hard to learn, endangered languages, and the interplay of culture and language. Most of all, Dorren has fun with the wonderful variety of human languages. Word nerds will love this book.

Dorren devotes a chapter to each language, counting down from Vietnamese to English. (Japanese gets an extra half chapter so that Dorren can show us how idiosyncratic its spelling systems are.) Each chapter has a slightly different focus so that a) the book isn’t repetitive and entirely packed with linguistic jargon and b) so that he can cover many of the different influences that act on the world’s languages. Some chapters (Bengali, Mandarin, the second Japanese chapter) look at writing systems. A few chapters (Japanese and Javanese) touch on how linguistic elements influenced and are influenced by social and gender stratification. The chapter on Arabic is one of my favorites because it consists of a brief dictionary of words that have been borrowed into and from Arabic into other languages; some words, it seems, are extremely mobile. Two chapters even have accompanying sound files on Dorren’s website so that non-Korean and non-Punjabi speakers can hear examples.

Several other chapters, like Tamil, Hindi/Urdu, Javanese, Indonesian/Malaysian, and Swahili, in particular, revolve around lingering problems with colonialism and nationalism. Dorren shows us over and over again how one’s mother tongue is an integral part of our identities. Having to learn a foreign language to education oneself, to use the court system, to take part in government, and so on erases the value of an indigenous language. Civil wars have erupted in part because of (Tamil) or been averted by (Indonesian/Malaysian) the choice of an official language. The chapter on Swahili is another of my favorites because it gives examples of societies in Africa that are comfortably (mostly) multilingual.

Dorren balances the heavy chapters about linguistic and civil conflict with fun (for word nerds, anyway) glimpses of linguistic oddities. Over and over, these chapters point out that it’s more luck and timing than anything else that gave some languages their edge in becoming lingua francas (though there are quite a few languages in the top 20 that benefited from policy). Tonal languages like Mandarin and Vietnamese are very hard for people who speak non-tonal languages to learn. Japanese spelling seems tailor-made to prevent literacy. And German, English, and Spanish grammar are packed with oddities. Yet, speakers of these languages see nothing strange about them at all. Indeed, speakers of English and the other most commonly spoken languages will extol their logic, ease of use, beauty, and other positives when asked about their complexities.

Whenever I read a book that gallops through languages like this one does, I have to marvel at the sheer variety of ways that people make themselves understood. Books like Babel also make me regret that I grew up in a distressingly monolingual society. Babel made me want, like Dorren, to dive face first into words and linguistic expression, so that I can share ideas and stories with others. Dorren’s failures with Vietnamese reassured me that, even though learning another language is hard, learning to navigate another language is a matter of time, effort, and enthusiasm. I hope that Babel similarly encourages other readers to take up the banner of bi- and multilingualism. Bon chance, tous le monde!

I received a free copy of the book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 4 December 2018.


* I use the language names Dorren uses. If you have issues with grouping Indonesian and Malaysian or Hindi and Urdu together, you can take it up with him.

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