Babel: Around the World in Twenty Languages

If you spoke all of the 20 languages featured in Babel, you could talk with half the world, claims popular linguistics writer Gaston Dorren (Lingo: Around Europe in Sixty Languages). That said, the greatest polyglot in this book is a Cameroonian named Jonas who speaks eight. Dorren offers an intriguing tasting-menu of the major standardized languages, one chapter for each.

Trade and imperialism were the major forces that spread most of these languages among so many people. Some, such as German, Korean and Tamil, "happen to occupy compact but densely populated regions." Still others owe a widespread popularity to their historic status as official colonial administrative languages. "Most have this in common: they are lingua francas--languages that bridge the gap between people with different mother tongues."

At the beginning of every chapter, Dorren offers some basic facts about its subject, such as number of speakers, geographic range, loanwords and accent obstacles. These are followed by an idiosyncratic essay on whatever has struck him about that language: the ideophones of Korean, Bengali script, the "language revolution" of 20th-century Turkish and the "linguistic gender apartheid" of Japanese.

Dorren's themes include the sense of correctness people have about different aspects of their languages, the cultural knowledge required for true fluency, the joys and challenges of multilingualism and, conversely, the sense of belonging that shared language can provide. Babel is an engaging and informative whirlwind tour of how major world languages are created, used and changed. --Sara Catterall

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