An informal and totally unscientific poll tells me that most people don’t realize that there are 60 languages in Europe; they are certainly surprised to hear that actually there are considerably more than 60.
Dutch linguist Gaston Dorren has written a slightly flawed but completely fascinating book, Lingo: Around Europe in sixty languages, which discusses 60 European languages. (You probably figured that out from the title.) This is a breezily written book for the general reader, not a dense text for professional linguists, so it’s clearly going to be set of snapshots — or fun facts, appetizers, amuse-bouches, however you want to characterize them. It’s not intended to be a serious presentation like those great books by Pei and Katzner that so entranced me when I was much younger.
Lingo does not feel like a translation, even though in fact it is one — by the much-more-than-competent Jenny Audring. I don’t know what’s her voice and what’s Dorren’s, but it comes through loud and clear. Perhaps that’s not too surprising, since he is not only Dutch but also a polyglot. Nevertheless, it’s amazing…
Anyway, what we have here is a mixture of remarks on a huge variety of languages — not only the obvious ones like English, French, German, Catalan, Basque, Macedonian, Sami, Monegasque, Karaim, … wait! that list started out obvious, but rapidly became obscure — along with observations on the historical and cultural contexts for those languages. Because it’s all in bite-size pieces, there’s no need to take it all in at once. For the most part it’s organized by language, with one short chapter for each. There are also some lagniappes, such as a somewhat strange (and tongue-in-cheek) chapter proposing the merger of Slovak with Bulgarian. Dorren clearly believes in the “leave ’em wanting more” principle, since he deliberately doesn’t provide much depth on anything, although perceptive discussions of dialects vs. languages pop up often enough to give the reader a pretty clear picture of that issue. If you’re looking for more depth, Wikipedia is a surprisingly good resource. (Yes, I know that English and history teachers rightly warn against Wikipedia, since it is filled with biases and inaccuracies in those disciplines — but it’s surprisingly accurate in math and linguistics, perhaps because opinions don’t play so much of a role there or because mathematicians and linguists are fanatics about detail.)
Reviewers used words like quirky, charming, and funny — all of which are accurate characterizations. But you probably wonder why I said that Lingo is “slightly flawed.” It’s mostly that I noticed occasional errors; of course I could notice them only if they overlapped my own knowledge, so there must be others that passed right by me. And I was not impressed by Dorren’s treatment of Esperanto and Yiddish. But that’s just nit-picking. Read the book!