Why is Basque so baffling, and which language sounds like a machine gun when spoken? Which Iranian language is represented in Europe and where is Gagauz spoken? Why has Frisian been elevated the rank of official regional language and how come tiny Slovenia has so many regional linguistic varieties? Answers to all these questions and much more can be found in ‘Lingo – a language spotter’s guide to Europe‘ by Gaston Dorren, a book I discovered when I attended The World in Words, an event at Edinburgh Book Festival with the author and Ann Morgan. Gaston Dorren is a Dutch linguist with proficiency in fifteen languages. Originally published in Dutch as Taaltoerisme (‘Language tourism’) and translated into English by Alison Edwards, Lingo packs 60 chapters into less than 300 pages, divided into various themes such as languages and their families, history, grammar, politics, or vocabulary, as well as linguists who left their mark (mostly on stamps 😉 it turns out). Almost every chapter ends with a word or two that English has loaned from the language under discussion, as well as a word from that language that doesn’t exist in English but perhaps should. Here are a few snippets from the book to whet your appetite:
- Life of PIE: Of all the world’s living languages, Lithuanian is the one that most closely resembles Proto Indo-European (PIE), the linguistic reconstruction of the common ancestor of the Indo-European languages.
- Did you know that two centuries ago Danish was spoken on four continents in an area twelve times the size of Great Britain?
- I had heard of Bokmål and Nynorsk, but didn’t know the difference. In the book I learnt that all Norwegians speak a regional dialect, and that the aforementioned are just two of the four existing versions.
- Sweden’s well-known linguistic informality only dates from the 1960s when the incoming Director-General of the Public Health Board announced that he intended to address all employees by their first name and would like them to do the same for him.
- ‘Moped’ is a portmanteau word of Swedish origin (from motor (engine) and pedaler (pedals).)
- Iceland is the only country in Europe that has a language that’s unique to that country. No other European country has identical political and linguistic boundaries.
- Modern Greek contains loan words such as farmakología and sti̱thoskópio that are actually foreign-built compounds created from Classical Greek.
- Most Portuguese loanwords in English come from the colonies, such as ‘fetish’ or ‘caste’ (Portuguese words for colonial phenomena) and ‘banana’ or ‘dodo’ (local words).
- While most languages translate the names of famous cities into their own tongue, Latvian has the unusual tendency to translate all names. Thus Charles de Gaulle becomes Sharrl de Goal and Miguel de Cervantes is Megell de Therbahntess.
- Diminutives are found throughout Europe except for Scandinavia.
- Breton has a vigesimal numeral system, based on sets on twenty. Thus 45 is ‘five-and-two-twenty’; 77 is ‘seventeen-and-three-twenty’. (The same number in Welsh is ‘two-on-fifteen-and-three-twenty’).
- Basque has a useful, single word for the act of translating from one’s own language into a foreign one: erdaratze.
- Irish has the second oldest literary tradition among living European languages, after Greek.
- Manx has no words for ‘yes’ or ‘no’. (If someone asks a question, you have to answer with a verb in the correct tense).
- Finnish has 15 cases, and ‘234’ written out in the sixth case becomes kahdestasadastakolmestakymmenestäneljästä because every individual component must receive its own case ending.
- If you’re European, words from which Afro-Asiastic language are printed on your passport? Which is the only Semitic language to be written in the Latin script? Maltese.
- Sign language family groupings are different from spoken languages groups: one group includes Sweden, Finland and Portugal, while another includes France, USA, Ireland, Netherlands. The British manual alphabet (used to spell out names or concepts for which the signer doesn’t have a sign at their immediate disposal) is two-handed, while most others are one-handed.
- One fascinating chapter lists all the clues that can help you identify an unknown language. What diacritics or unfamiliar characters does it use? What frequent letter combinations or odd letter patterns rarely turn up in another language?
These are just a few excerpts from the book, which seems to have something fascinating to point out about every European language. I found the section on languages and their grammar slightly less interesting than the eight other sections, but that’s purely due to my English-native-speaker’s grammar prejudice rather than to any shortcoming of the author’s. And I although I no longer live in the UK, I was fascinated to learn so much about the languages of the British Isles about which I know so little: Anglo-Norman, Shelta, and Manx to name but a few. Now all we need are similar books about other continents’ languages!
P.S. In his Further Reading section the author lists David Bellos’ ‘Is That a Fish in Your Ear?‘ as “the only book on translation you ever need to read, unless you want to make it your job. Erudite, recalcitrant [sic] and fun”. You can read my blog post about that book here.
- My (or rather Ann’s) time in Edinburgh – a reposting on Gaston Dorren’s website of Ann Morgan’s article about Edinburgh Book Festival 2015
- Lingo: A Language Spotter’s Guide to Europe by Gaston Dorren, review: ‘enormous fun’ – The Telegraph, 12th November 2014
- Europe in 60 languages – The Spectator, 15th November 2014
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