Friday, January 14, 2022

Lingo: Around Europe in Sixty Languages by Gaston Dorren

Entertaining kaleidoscope of linguistic history and diversity
Gaston Dorren is a Dutch author who has written and published works both in his native language and in English. Fluent in several languages and able to read several others, Dorren certainly demonstrates an encyclopedic knowledge of many languages in his book Lingo: Around Europe in Sixty Languages. Published in America in 2015, Lingo is based on a book Dorren previously published in Dutch entitled Taaltoerisme. The American edition, however, reads as if it were expressly written for an English-language audience, not just because of Dorren’s English fluency but also because he constantly makes comparisons between the vocabulary, grammar, and syntax of English and that of other European languages. Though he is an accomplished polyglot, it is unclear to me whether Dorren has had any formal education in linguistics. If not, that may be a good thing, because were he an academic he might not write such entertaining prose for the general reader.

As the subtitle indicates, Lingo is comprised of sixty chapters, each of which typically examines a different language. That structure is not strictly adhered to, however, because often several languages will be discussed in a single chapter. Dorren goes well beyond the familiar national languages to cover some of the lesser-known regional tongues of Europe such as Breton, Sami, Manx, Gagauz, and Faroese. The chapters are divided among nine thematic sections that focus on, for example, languages with interesting historical pedigrees, languages with unusual grammar, alphabets, or spelling conventions, or languages that are endangered. Dorren reveals much fascinating detail on the history of languages, how they developed from their prehistoric progenitors, and how they have been influenced by politics in ancient and modern times. The book also delves into the mechanics of languages, pointing out similarities and highlighting structural anomalies, such as the convoluted spellings of Welsh, the confusing cases of Romani, the uncommon ergativity of Basque, the baffling genders of Dutch, and the cumbersome peculiarities of English.

Reading Lingo will not help you become fluent in a foreign language, but it will certainly kindle your enthusiasm for linguistic study. If you are already interested in learning foreign languages, then you will definitely enjoy all the arcane trivia that Dorren presents on the languages of Europe. It is really quite amazing how he can take such technical subject matter and generate prose that is not only intelligent and articulate but also lively and fun. If you happen to be studying any European languages, you might pick up a useful skill or an aid to understanding along the way. I know nothing about Russian, for example, but Dorren’s brief primer on the reading of Cyrillic was an enlightening introduction that renders the exotic alphabet less intimidating. This book’s brief linguistic vignettes explain the quirky learning hurdles in many languages while simultaneously demystifying them.

As an avid self-educated language dilettante, I wish there were more books like this—comparative linguistics for the culturally curious general reader and traveler. Dorren followed up Lingo with Babel, published in 2019. This latter book examines the world’s twenty most popular languages, including Asian and African languages. No doubt it will showcase more of Dorren’s comprehensive insight into the idiosyncrasies of planet Earth’s many tongues. After thoroughly enjoying Lingo, I look forward to reading it.
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