20 things I learnt about 20 languages…

… from reading Gaston Dorren’s book Babel: Around the World in Twenty Languages. First published in 2018, this is the second book of language writer Dorren’s that I’ve read; you can see my blog post about the first one, Lingo – a language spotter’s guide to Europehere.

Chapter by chapter, Babel looks at the 20 most spoken languages in the world, which three quarters of the world’s population can speak at least one of. Dorren doesn’t just profile every language the same way, but takes us on a linguistic journey – from an English-language perspective – to discover an interesting aspect (script, grammar, phonology, or vocabulary) of each.

So here is one thing I learnt about each language, with the languages listed in the same order as the book, i.e. starting with the least spoken and ending with the biggest:

  • Vietnamese: I was familiar with Vietnamese script and the fact that up to 60% of Vietnamese vocabulary is of Chinese origin, but I was tickled to learn that the language would use different words for ‘how’ in the questions ‘how long is the snake?’ and ‘how scary is the snake?’ on the basis length can be measured precisely but scariness can’t!
  • Korean: having lived in Korea for three years, this is a language I have more than a passing acquaintance with (see my blog post here), but I never realised that it is a language with thousands of ideophones: words that evoke or depict ideas in sound imitation (and not just onomatopoeias).
  • Tamil: while many people extol their virtues of their own language, Tamil speakers consider their language sacred, divine even. This is a fairly recent development, following years of oppression, but has led to activists committing suicide in a bid to see the language flourish.

Tamil writing on a building in Chennai (photo from my trip to Tamil Nadu in March 2018)

  • Turkish: in 1928 President Atatürk replaced the language’s Ottoman Turkish alphabet (a Perso-Arabic script) with a tailor-made variety of the Latin alphabet which has 29 letters.
  • Javanese: this is the language in the book with the smallest home base in geographical terms, as it is only spoken on the eponymous island. It has a high-register style called krama, which absolutely must be used in all formal situations, such as in a law court, or between persons of lower status to those of higher status (age, seniority). Such ingrained over-politeness may be eventually be the undoing of the language.
  • Persian: has become a much simpler language to learn over the course of several millennia … partly thanks to itinerant construction workers who were brought in from other parts of the Persian Empire!
  • Punjabi: unusually for a South Asian language, Punjabi is tonal, although the linguistic jury is still out as to whether the language has two, three, or four tones, and many native speakers are not even aware their language is tonal.

Sign in Punjabi and Latin script at Southall train station, SW London

  • Japanese: women and men are expected to speak slightly different genderlects, i.e. language varieties based on gender, and translations are not exempt (e.g. Angelina Jolie speaking women’s language in a newspaper interview).
  • Swahili: as the only African language in the book, Dorren took the opportunity to look at the continent’s linguistic landscape as a whole, highlighting Africa’s ‘easy’ multilingualism. Swahili has at least twice, if not thrice as many speakers as the next most spoken language on the continent, and many intellectuals have made the case for it to become a continental lingua franca.
  • German: how ‘strange’ a language is German? In a statistical analysis of the linguistic features of 2,679 languages, German ranked at number 10 for ‘weirdness’. This is to do with its polar (yes-no) questions, /ng/ sound, rare consonants, expression of pronominal subjects, gender in pronouns, and complicated word order.

Map of the 25 “weirdest” languages of the world

  • French: the chapter concentrates on why French grammar and spelling are enforced so strictly, and Dorren suggests that French native speakers are unusual in having a widespread belief that they make a deplorably poor job of speaking their mother tongue.
  • Malay: spoken in Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei and the southern tip of Thailand, as well as in Malaysia. The writer points out that Indonesia has been fortunate to enjoy linguistic peace since independence in the late 1940s despite being the world’s second most multilingual country, largely due to successful and sensible language policies having been implemented by the country’s leaders.

In Indonesia “gang” means “alleyway” (loanword from Dutch)

  • Russian: did you know there’s a (n Indo-European language) family relationship between English and Russian? The two were mutually intelligible in 3000 BCE, and while fifty centuries since has created differences, there are definite similarities to look out for.
  • Portuguese: while Dutch and Portuguese were both colonial languages, the latter has spread much more widely due to its speakers being at the right places (e.g. Brazil) at the right times (e.g. during periods of migration). In this chapter, a subject dear to my heart also gets a mention:

Creole languages also emerged elsewhere in the world, some among enslaved Africans, others among ethnically mixed groups. Most of them are now nearly or entirely extinct, but in the Indian Ocean islands of Mauritius and Réunion they are alive and well. The creoles of Papua New Guinea and the Seychelles, called Tok Pisin and Seselwa, respectively, have even acquired official status, once more alongside European languages.

  • Bengali: an Indo-European language spoken by 275 million people mostly in Bangladesh and India. In the latter’s West Bengal state, a record-breaking nine different scripts are in use, including Bengali, Devanagari (used to write Hindi and Nepali), Perso-Arabic (for Urdu), and the Roman alphabet for English. Including ligatures, Bengali has a total of 331 characters!

Part of a poem written in Bengali and English by Bengali Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore

  • Arabic: as a vocabulary nerd I found this chapter one of the most interesting, as Dorren listed several dozen English words with Arabic etymologies. While some (e.g. algebra) were well known to me, many others (e.g. admiral, baobab, alchemy, carat, alkali, sash, tamarind, hazard etc) weren’t.
  • Hindi-Urdu: I never knew until reading Babel that Urdu and Hindi are actually two registers of the same language, with the same grammar, and are mutually intelligible despite some vocabulary differences. Hindi is written in the Devanagari script, while Urdu is written in the Perso-Arabic script.
  • Spanish: two verbs for ‘to be’, ser and estar, make Spanish difficult to master for non-native speakers.
  • Mandarin: approximately 98% of Chinese characters are not pictograms or ideograms, i.e. you cannot work out their meaning based on their resemblance to things in real life.
  • English: until now, the only language spoken on the moon has been English.

For the sake of brevity, I’ve purposely limited myself to just one item for each language, but there’s much more to learn in the book! I’ve also highly condensed what are some very detailed and interesting explanations. And while I read the book in English, it’s been translated into 15 other languages including Italian, Slovak, Greek and Norwegian.

Further reading: