cover image Babel: Around the World in Twenty Languages

Babel: Around the World in Twenty Languages

Gaston Dorren. Atlantic Monthly, $25 (320p) ISBN 978-0-8021-2879-9

Linguist Dorren (Lingo) expertly unpacks the baffling exceptions and structural oddities of the world’s 20 most-spoken languages in his delightful latest. After noting that mastery of the full list would allow fluent conversation with three-quarters of the world’s population, Dorren begins his linguistic journey in Vietnam, home of the 20th most-spoken language. Chapters open with capsule descriptions that detail regions where each language is spoken, number of speakers, script, grammar, sounds, loanwords, and “exports” (words adopted into other languages), followed by an idiosyncratic essay on striking elements of the featured language (e.g., there are no articles in the Russian language; Portuguese has 15 vowel sounds that can be “combined into many different diphthongs and triphthongs”). Fifteen pages per chapter sets a brisk pace, but Dorren always succeeds in sharing his delight at the intricacies and compromises of human communication. His focus varies widely: for example, the “linguistic gender apartheid” of Javanese (at #16) follows a pointed discussion on the Tamil language in India and Sri Lanka (“the Tamil Tigers were the protagonists in a civil war that tore the island of Sri Lanka apart.... And the conflict was triggered by language”; with 90 million speakers, Tamil is the 18th most-spoken language). Yet whether he is debunking common misunderstandings about Chinese characters or detailing the rigid caste distinctions ossified in Javanese, Dorren educates and fascinates. Word nerds of every strain will enjoy this wildly entertaining linguistic study. Agent: George Lucas, Inkwell Management. (Dec.)