I saw a woman reading Gaston Dorren’s Lingo: Around Europe in Sixty Languages at the Philly airport in early March and, since she said it was worth reading, grabbed the audio version for my spring training drives around Florida (which has some seriously boring highways). I haven’t had time to devote to language-learning in years – something to do with having a kid – but my lifelong obsession with foreign languages hasn’t abated; I find everything about them fascinating, even the ‘boring’ stuff like grammar and syntax. Lingo could have been written just for me, as it skips a lot of the linguistics stuff and instead flits around sixty of Europe’s languages, with goofy anecdotes and brief histories on each to keep the book moving.
There is no central narrative at work in Lingo; this is a dilettante’s work and a book for the peripatetic mind. You don’t have to speak any of the languages Dorren covers to appreciate some of the stories of how languages morphed, or hidden similarities between languages, or the ways languages have defined peoples and borders in Europe. Dorren starts off with Lithuanian, a language that bears many clues to what the forerunner of most European languages, clumsily called Proto-Indo-European, may have looked like, before an immediate tangent on the main oddballs of Europe, the Finno-Ugric languages (Magyar/Hungarian, Finnish, and Estonian), which bear no resemblance at all to their geographic neighbors. Portuguese owes much of its existence to Galician. Dorren describes the “linguistic orphanage” of the Balkans, where Serbian and Croatian are kind of the same language written in different alphabets while the people who speak Macedonian and live in Macedonia have to call their country something else because the Greeks might get mad. (Speaking of which, shouldn’t one of the conditions of the bailout of Greece been that they leave the Macedonians the hell alone?)
Tiny languages like Luxembourgish, Sorbian (from the NBC Saturday morning cartoon show The Sorbs), Sami, and Gagauz get their own chapters, illuminating the battles languages with small populations fight to survive. Some don’t make it; Dalmatian’s brief life and quick death gets a chapter, but the rebirths of Cornish and Manx, two Celtic languages that are two of the only success stories in that department. (The fact that both are spoken in the United Kingdom, a highly developed country, is probably not a coincidence.) Basque, the language isolate spoken in Spain, gets its own chapter, although I think Dorren gave it short shrift; its linguistic origins are unknown despite lengthy efforts to try to connect it to various language families, and its survival despite the lack of a state and its enclave status within Spain’s panoply of dialects make it one of the language world’s most fascinating stories.
Dorren had to face a huge challenge finding something interesting to say on all of these languages, but succeeds more than he fails by finding surprising angles. Turkish, the primary member of the Turkic language family, gets a chapter devoted to its alphabet; the official shift to the Roman alphabet in the 1920s carried enormous political and religious significance. He accurately dubs Esperanto “the no-hoper,” and the chapter on Albanian becomes a story of a few lonesome Albanologists. Hungarian’s chapter is presented as a conversation between the language and its therapist, shortly after the chapter on the variety of European sign languages; I profess my ignorance at just how many sign languages there are worldwide. And he ends with English, which he calls “the global headache,” the universal language that Esperanto (and Volapük and other pretenders) will never unseat, a language with maddening internal inconsistencies in grammar, spelling, and pronunciation that make our complaints about conjugating irregular Spanish verbs seem trivial in comparison.
The lack of any common thread through all the chapters makes Lingo a bit choppy to read, with no story beyond any one language, almost like reading a sort of half-serious reference work rather than the kind of narrative non-fiction I tend to favor. But Lingo also made me nostalgic for when I did have the time to learn bits of other languages, whether in school or on my own, and wonder when I might get another chance to do something like that – maybe spending a few weeks abroad at some point in my life so I can learn via immersion. The sheer diversity of languages in Europe and the aesthetic and literary beauty of many of those tongues comes through in Dorren’s book, even with all of his flitting from one to the next.
Next up: Angela Carter’s highly acclaimed novel Nights at the Circus, which won the Best of the James Tait Black honor in 2012 as the best of the 93 previous winners of the annual award, and was also on David Bowie’s personal top 100 books list.