Thursday 19 September 2019

Around the world in 20 languages

With many of us shamefully monolingual in the anglophone world, Gaston Dorren's punchy book gives us a fascinating insight into what we're missing out on in the linguistic jungle

Phoneme–nal: Dorren speaks five
Phoneme–nal: Dorren speaks five
Babel by Gaston Dorren

While globalisation and urbanisation are decimating humanity's glorious heritage of languages at a frightening pace, there still remains an estimated 6,000 which are used daily around the planet. As Dutch linguist Gaston Dorren puts it in the introduction to this book, "Such amazing diversity - what a Babel we live in!"

The word comes, as we all learned in school, from the Bible story about how God, angered by mankind's arrogance in building a tower to heaven, shattered apart the original, "perfect" language into countless mutually incomprehensible variations. For this at least, we can be thankful to the spiteful Abrahamic deity.

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Language defines consciousness to a large degree; therefore more languages makes for a richer, more colourful and more interesting world-mind. That's underappreciated in the anglophone world, as Dorren points out more than once; we're shamefully monolingual.

In fairness, though, part of that may be down to English becoming the default global lingua franca. (Though this may change, with the economic rise of China, India and elsewhere.) No need, really, to learn another tongue when so many people can understand yours.

Indeed, such is the ever-increasing homogenisation of language that, Dorren says, by being proficient in just four - Mandarin, English, Spanish and Hindi-Urdu - "you could smoothly navigate most of the world". His book is subtitled 'Around the World in 20 Languages', and concentrates on the most used - these, he adds, are understood by three-quarters of the Earth's population.

So Babel is a study of the largest beasts in the linguistic jungle, working upwards from Vietnamese (75 million native speakers, 10 million others who use it as a second-language) to our colonial tongue, in with a bullet at number one.

Interestingly, English only comes third in terms of native speakers - 375 million, well behind Spanish (425 million, 575 million in total). Mandarin is the mother tongue of a scarcely-conceivable 900 million people (1.3 billion total). But English, as mentioned, is widely known across the world, bringing its total to 1.5 billion.

As a bit of a linguistics nerd, I find these statistics fascinating. Did you know that essentially nobody speaks Korean as a second language? But Babel - fittingly for a book on language - is about more than numbers. Dorren takes a clever approach to each of his 20 chapters (actually 20½: the head-wreckingly complex writing system of Japanese gets an additional half-chapter near the end).

He doesn't just give an overview of the languages discussed; he explores a theme or element in each one, sometimes drawing broader conclusions on language as a whole.

So, for instance, we learn all about tonal languages as Dorren struggles to learn Vietnamese. Tamil allows entry into a history lesson on Sri Lanka's violent civil war. We learn about how French was once considered a state of absolute perfection in language terms, and why they're still so resistant to change today.

He painstakingly, but smoothly, traces Russia's connection to western European languages - indeed virtually all tongues between here and India - as distantly related descendants of Proto-Indo-European, some 5,000 years in the past. We learn about ancient Persia, the Dutch corporation which once ruled Indonesia, the Portuguese conquest of the Americas, how Arabic and English aren't as different as we might assume, and why Turkish is one of the few languages to have been remodelled successfully and elegantly.

Dorren is one of those brilliant people who speaks five languages fluently (one of which, Limburgish, I'd never even heard of) and reads in a further 11. He wrote this book in English, to appeal to a bigger audience, and his smart, punchy prose would put some of our own authors to shame.

And I loved this book. You're swept along through the worlds of phonemes and pictograms, onomatopoeia and conjugation. I especially enjoyed discovering the true origin of words now commonplace in English. 'Pariah' is Tamil, 'lilac' and 'divan' are Turkish, 'pyjamas" 'is Persian, 'tycoon' is Japanese, 'statistics' is German, 'cobra' is Portuguese, 'mammoth' is Russian, 'dungaree' is Hindi-Urdu, 'guitar' is Spanish.

The terms 'brain-washing' and 'paper tiger' originated in Mandarin. 'Alcohol', ironically enough, comes from Arabic, the language of non-drinking Islam. And yes, as Dorren points out with an almost audible chuckle, 'hakuna matata' really does mean 'no worries'.

Darragh McManus' novels include 'Shiver the Whole Night Through' and 'The Polka Dot Girl'

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