Babel: Around the World in Twenty Languages – Gaston Dorren

I got the Polish version of this book as a gift from my mother. It is beautifully published with a cover showing 20 cats sitting on the word ‘cat’ in each of the twenty languages. At just over 400 pages it is not exactly a short read, but the way Dorren writes about languages makes for a riveting read.

It probably took me around two weeks to finish it, and I’m pretty sure my family and friends were very keen for me to finally do. Because while reading it I was constantly sharing what I learned with anyone who would listen (and people who wouldn’t). The idea is simple: take twenty most spoken languages in the world and write about each of them to explain what makes them special. In order from the ‘smallest’ (it’s hard to call a language small when it has 85 mln users), we have: Vietnamese, Korean, Tamil, Turkish, Javanese, Persian, Punjabi, Japanese, Swahili, German, French, Malay, Russian, Portuguese, Bengali, Arabic, Hindi/Urdu, Spanish, Mandarin and English.

In each chapter, Dorren focuses on one language and analyses an aspect that makes it in some way special. Obviously, he cannot analyze each language in-depth, that would take volumes. He starts with Vietnamese, and to pull us in tells his adventure with the language. When after a year and a half of diligent learning he is still not able to correctly say the phrase ‘I study Vietnamese a year and a half and I still cannot speak the language’. Then moving through the other languages he touches on topics such as tonality, various formal and informal registers, language as the main mean of national identification, language as a political tool, artificial interventions in language, colonization, what makes a lingua franca, language and gender. He even tries to answer the question is German really that complicated?

It is a fascinating read and also one that made me realize how narrow is my western perspective. Living in Europe and speaking four European languages (to some degree) I still basically operate within one or two language families, completely oblivious to other ways of thinking, expressing and using the language. For example, we take it for granted that if the genus appears in a language it is inextricably tied to gender/sex, but what if genus would describe some other difference? Something like the difference between living things and inanimate objects? The number of options that don’t even cross our minds is mind-blowing. Another interesting aspect was how different languages approach converting the spoken language into a written one. Again opportunities and approaches are endless.

When he reaches two most spoken languages: Mandarin and English Dorren poses the question of whether Mandarin would become a new ligua franca. He doesn’t think so, actually, he wonders if we’ll even need one given the rapid progress of technology. In a not so distant future, we may all be able to speak our mother tongue and thanks to instant translators still understand each other. Which, as he mentions would be convenient but at the same time a loos. Because by learning languages we open our minds to a different culture and a different way of perceiving and describing the world.

If you’ll have a chance, read this one, it really opens your horizons.

Photo by Violetta Kaszubowska 

2 thoughts on “Babel: Around the World in Twenty Languages – Gaston Dorren

  1. I think I’ve read a different book by him, and this one is appealing (though in English). I’m limited to two language families, too, and my learning in the Germanic side of things is much worse than my Romance languages, and it is fascinating to read about others.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Fourth quarter round-up –

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