Book Review: Lingo. A Language Spotter’s Guide to Europe, by Gaston Dorren

An insightful and entertaining account of the many languages of Europe. Strongly recommended.

“Lingo. A Language Spotter’s Guide to Europe”
by Gaston Dorren
Profile Books, November 2014
Hardback, 14 x 20.5 cm (5.5 x 8.1 in), 304 pp., £12.99 (unreleased in the US at present)
ISBN 978 1 7812 5416 5
Available for Kindle (£4.80), and in the iTunes Store.

When the UK joined the EU – in those days the ‘Common Market’ – a popular jibe was that it could not even agree on a common language. It is as well that we did not have this wonderful little book in our pockets then, as it projects us through history and geography in its 60 short chapters, to show how diverse but interrelated the languages of Europe are.

The theme of the book is the Indo-European family of languages: a huge, controversial, and intricate field of linguistics which has occupied many of the greatest intellects in recent history. Its approach is a remarkable balance between factual nuggets, comparative linguistics, European history, and vivid pen portraits – with a dash of sometimes irreverent humour added. This is a far cry from any other account of Indo-European. Chapters are short, and ideal for consumption when travelling or at odd times during the day, something aided by the pocketability of its format. Being fairly dense in factual content, sometimes sweeping through centuries of history in a few sentences, long drafts are probably best avoided.

Part 1 introduces the families of Indo-European languages. Because of their tree structure, this is a tricky task in such a serial medium, but Dorren avoids delivering a series of prefaces. Each chapter ends with some modern English words which have been borrowed from the language in question, and a favourite word of choice from that language, which is notably elegant or epitomises the tongue.

One slight snag with these and other quotations of words from so many different phonetic systems is that it is not easy to hear each in your head. It would have been helpful if we had a transcription of each into the International Phonetic Alphabet, and a potted summary of the latter in an appendix.

Chapters are aimed at anyone who can remember a little grammar of one or more non-English languages, and most specialised terms are explained clearly where needed. However Dorren does several times refer to cases such as the vocative which may be a little vague in memory. Another brief appendix which would have been useful could have included a succinct summary of cases, perhaps. (I have posted an article attempting to do this here as a help.)

Many of his sketches are poignant statements in their own right. For example his account of the constancy of Icelandic against the harsh rural life described by Nobel prizewinner Halldór Laxness, the shattered linguistics of the Balkans, and cross-border communication in Yiddish. We court contradicting the great linguist Geoffrey Pullum on plurality of words for snow in Sami, struggle uphill with Irish, and demolish some myths about sign languages. Every paragraph brings further worthwhile glimpses of other societies and traditions (although I was slightly disappointed that Dorren does not notice how close Faroese is to singing).

Sadly the reader is offered very few links, beyond a helpful reading list, with which to follow these jewels up. The electronic versions of this book are also simple ports and have not been enhanced to make any better use of their medium. Dorren’s equally excellent app, The Language Lover’s Guide to Europe, is far more helpful in that respect, but is subtly different: it consists of detailed information and links for hundreds of language-related locations across greater Europe, making it a valuable resource for the traveller. For example, one link which should have been given in the introduction is to Ethnologue, the vast compendium of more prosaic data about the languages of the world.

Another slight quirk about this British English edition is that it is not quite ready to launch on the other side of the Atlantic. Dorren largely confines his coverage to Europe, and barely mentions the European languages which have colonised the Americas: the pockets of Nordic languages in the USA, scattered German speakers in North and South America, or The Welsh Colony in Argentina. No doubt the forthcoming US edition will embrace those too.

My final request for the next edition is an appendix with one or two common sentences translated into each of the subject languages, grouped by family. I think that could enhance the brief tastings that Dorren provides of these richly varied dishes.

In asking for more, I realise that I am paying this excellent book the greatest compliment. Its author declares that he speaks six languages and reads a further nine. The evidence is that he has insight and empathy with all fifty-odd here, and is at his most fluent when celebrating them in his perceptive pen portraits.

I strongly recommend this book to all who have the slightest interest in languages, history, or Europe; even the professional linguist will still find it thoroughly worthwhile and an enjoyable read. I hope that the publisher has commissioned further volumes to cover other continents.