February 25, 2020

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Dutch linguist's European tour a worldly delight

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 9/1/2016 (1508 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

On this grand tour, the affable cicerone focuses on the "quirks, histories and splendours" of 60 dialects and standard tongues.

Your tour guide is Holland-based linguist Gaston Dorren. Lingo is a revised English translation of his 2012 Dutch-language non-fiction work, Language Tourism, and was first published in Great Britain last year as Lingo: A Language Spotter's Guide to Europe.

Dorren knows of what he speaks — he can converse in six languages and reads nine others. He has published widely on linguistics, developing the Language Lover's Guide to Europe app in 2013 and, since March of that year, has regularly blogged on English site languagewriter.com.

This language writer dazzles. His stylistic flair is more than just entertaining — it crystallizes abstract ideas he conveys through vivid imagery.

For example: "Whereas the political map (of Europe) is a mass of solid monochromatic blocks, the languages of the continent create something that's more like a multi-coloured mosaic in many places, while in other regions it resembles a floor that's been sprinkled with confetti," and "Generally, languages divide into separate parts, like amoebas, or develop offshoots, like strawberry plants."

Dorren approaches his subject with passion and humour. His chapters are diverse, each normally highlighting the peculiarities of a single language.

There's a list-based article (listicle) on sign languages and an essay on English, The global headache, which compares it to Chinese. He assumes different voices, for instance that of a "primary-care linguist" psychoanalyzing "Ms. Magyar" (Hungarian) and a comrade addressing his compatriots (Belarussian). The consideration of Luxembourgish is written in the form of a fairy tale.

Another linguist, Jenny Audring, contributes three chapters to Lingo (Cornish, Finnish, Maltese), using a chatty, familiar style not unlike Dorren's. Frauke Watson, a translator, provided the chapter on Manx. These chapters are not out of place.

Each grouping of six to eight chapters forms a "part," such as Languages and Politics or Languages and Their Vocabulary. This provides organization to the book, as well as themes for comparing the languages within each part.

Each part has a succinct, enticing introduction, as with Languages and Their Families: "... (the story of the Indo-European language family) is like any other family saga, complete with conservative patriarchs (Lithuanian), bickering children (Romansh), spitting-image siblings (the Slavics), forgotten cousins (Ossetian), orphans (Romanian and other Balkan languages)."

Dorren's pace is swift; chapters are generally four to five pages long. If you're not so fussy on Channel Island Norman (nearly 6,000 Norman speakers live on the Channel Islands), don't fret. You'll soon be presented with three endangered Jewish languages: Karaim, Ladino and Yiddish. Shortly, you can consider Icelandic.

This is not to suggest the writing is superficial; chapters are filled with facts and clearly explained linguistic theory. Meaningful discussion on language requires technical talk about alphabets, diacritics, phonemes and the like. Satisfied readers will have to like, or at least appreciate, these tools of the trade because Dorren goes there too.

With any tour, what will stand out depends in part on one's interests. In richly diverse Manitoba, many language lovers will delight in chapters concerning their own European roots. There's a passing reference to Inuktitut in the chapter on the Sami language (the Sami people are commonly called Lapps). The chapter ponders, "How many words do the Sami have for snow?" Unsurprisingly, this remains unresolved.

Lingo is not a weighty academic treatment of language — unlike, for example, The Story of Spanish (2013) by Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow. But there are conventions; where Dorren refers to studies in his text, these should be footnoted so readers may seek them directly.

For language tourists, Lingo is a tour de force.

 

Gail Perry is a Winnipeg writer.

Gail Perry

Gail Perry
Wolseley community correspondent

Gail Perry is a community correspondent for Wolseley.

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