Multilingual Dutch journalist and linguist Dorren (Lingo: Around Europe in Sixty Languages, 2015, etc.) proves to be a genial, fascinating guide to the modes, manners, and curiosities of the most-spoken languages in the world.
Among an estimated 6,000 languages in existence, 20 are spoken by half the world’s population. From Vietnamese (85 million speakers) to English (1.5 billion speakers), the author investigates cultural, historical, and political influences that shaped the language, beginning with a succinct overview of the language’s significant traits: writing system, family (Austronesian, Indo-European, etc.), grammar, and sounds. He also offers a sampling of words borrowed from other languages and those exported to English: lilac, from Turkish; safari, from Swahili; and eight pages of the plethora of English words derived from Arabic. Among the 20 selections are several that reveal deep-seated social divides. Japanese (130 million speakers), which has no grammatical gender, requires women to speak in a distinctive “genderlect”: using slightly longer versions of words to make them sound polite and using different pronouns from men. Those differences, dating as far back as 794, have been abating over the past 25 years, Dorren writes, with women in films, theater, and on TV using speech that has “a much more masculine character than before.” Javanese (95 million speakers) has “an exceptionally extensive formality system” in which every word has a synonym that reflects and reinforces Java’s social hierarchy. That language is becoming endangered, with Malay (275 million speakers) having become the official language after Indonesia’s independence in the late 1940s, uniting a population spread across nearly 1,000 islands, speaking over 700 different languages. Punjabi (125 million speakers), like Vietnamese, Hmong, Swedish, and Mandarin, is a tonal language, in which the meaning of the same word changes depending on the tone in which it is spoken. In conveying unfamiliar sounds, Dorren uses English spelling conventions but helpfully directs readers to his website, languagewriter.com, where sound files are available.
A deft, spirited exploration of the connection of language to a nation’s identity and culture.