Quirky facts about 60 European languages.
In his debut book in English, Dutch linguist and journalist Dorren, who speaks six languages and reads nine more, explores the origins, families, vocabularies, and grammars of 60 languages, dead (Dalmation), dying (Gaeltacht Irish), and alive. The political map of the continent appears as “a mass of solid monochromatic blocks,” the author writes, but a map of languages looks “more like a multi-colored mosaic in many places, while in other regions it resembles a floor that’s been sprinkled with confetti.” While he reveals many intriguing nuggets of information about languages from the familiar (French, German, Spanish) to the arcane (Manx, Ossetian, Sorbian), he assumes that readers have a fairly sophisticated knowledge of grammatical terms: absolutives, augmentatives, demonstratives, case, reflexive possessive pronouns, and ergative verbs may not be in every reader’s vocabulary. It helps to know the difference between subject and object, too, in order to grasp why the terms “agent” and “patient” are more appropriate to understanding Basque grammar. At the end of each chapter, Dorren cites a few words imported from that language into English: “anchovy,” from Portuguese; “avalanche” from Romansh (through French); “get” and “egg” from Early Norwegian. But nothing, sadly, from Latvian, or from Monégasque, a subdialect of Ligurian, spoken by about 100 people in Monaco. Besides borrowed words, Dorren suggests idiosyncratic terms that might well be taken up by English speakers: “Beloruchka,” Russian for a “ ‘white-hand person’; somebody who shirks dirty work”; or, from Slovak, “Proznovit,” “to make someone’s phone ring just once in the hope that they will call back.” The author describes his book as an “amuse-bouche,” a tasty morsel that gives diners a hint of a chef’s talent, and he certainly displays his own linguistic talents and enthusiasm for languages. Too often, however, he tells what people speak and where rather than how a language transformed and why.
For linguists and readers truly thrilled by the meticulous study of languages.