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A deft, spirited exploration of the connection of language to a nation’s identity and culture.

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,, where sound files are available.

A deft, spirited exploration of the connection of language to a nation’s identity and culture.

Pub Date: Dec. 4, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-8021-2879-9

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Atlantic Monthly

Review Posted Online: Sept. 10, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2018

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This is not the Nutcracker sweet, as passed on by Tchaikovsky and Marius Petipa. No, this is the original Hoffmann tale of 1816, in which the froth of Christmas revelry occasionally parts to let the dark underside of childhood fantasies and fears peek through. The boundaries between dream and reality fade, just as Godfather Drosselmeier, the Nutcracker's creator, is seen as alternately sinister and jolly. And Italian artist Roberto Innocenti gives an errily realistic air to Marie's dreams, in richly detailed illustrations touched by a mysterious light. A beautiful version of this classic tale, which will captivate adults and children alike. (Nutcracker; $35.00; Oct. 28, 1996; 136 pp.; 0-15-100227-4)

Pub Date: Oct. 28, 1996

ISBN: 0-15-100227-4

Page Count: 136

Publisher: Harcourt

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 1996

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An extravaganza in Bemelmans' inimitable vein, but written almost dead pan, with sly, amusing, sometimes biting undertones, breaking through. For Bemelmans was "the man who came to cocktails". And his hostess was Lady Mendl (Elsie de Wolfe), arbiter of American decorating taste over a generation. Lady Mendl was an incredible person,- self-made in proper American tradition on the one hand, for she had been haunted by the poverty of her childhood, and the years of struggle up from its ugliness,- until she became synonymous with the exotic, exquisite, worshipper at beauty's whrine. Bemelmans draws a portrait in extremes, through apt descriptions, through hilarious anecdote, through surprisingly sympathetic and understanding bits of appreciation. The scene shifts from Hollywood to the home she loved the best in Versailles. One meets in passing a vast roster of famous figures of the international and artistic set. And always one feels Bemelmans, slightly offstage, observing, recording, commenting, illustrated.

Pub Date: Feb. 23, 1955

ISBN: 0670717797

Page Count: -

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: Oct. 25, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 1955

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