Babel

Read and enjoy this book!

Don’t argue: just do it. You’ll learn a lot and will have fun along the way.

As the subtitle to Babel Around the World in Twenty Languages — suggests, Dutch linguist Gaston Dorren takes us on a journey through the 20 most widely spoken languages in the world. Those are, in ascending order of number of speakers, Vietnamese, Korean, Tamil, Turkish, Javanese, Persian, Punjabi, Japanese, Swahili, German, French, Malay, Russian, Portuguese, Bengali, Arabic, Hindi-Urdu, Spanish, Mandarin, and English. You may surprised by which languages are on the list — how many of these could you have identified as being in the top 20? — and you may be surprised by the choice of names of some of these languages, at least the ones I’ve shown in red: why does the author say Javanese, which sounds wrong to most Americans, and Persian instead of Farsi, and Malay instead of Indonesian, and Hindi-Urdu as if it’s a single language, and Mandarin instead of Chinese? Perhaps you already know the answers. If not, read the book. (I’ll answer those questions below, however.)

Babel is definitely written for the non-linguist, but Dorren sneaks in a good deal of linguistics along the way, so you’re not only getting a picture of each language but also gaining knowledge of various linguistic concepts as they happen to be illustrated by the particular languages. Even as a linguist I learned a lot from Babel — not the general concepts but a great many specifics about the languages in question. Although I already knew quite a bit about eight of them (Turkish, Japanese, German, French, Russian, Spanish, Mandarin, and of course English), Dorren still taught me important lessons even about those eight, and of course he taught me a lot about the other twelve. BTW, although I say that “I already knew quite a bit about” those eight, it certainly doesn’t mean that I could speak all eight: I couldn’t carry on any conversations — even the most rudimentary — in Turkish, Japanese, Russian, Spanish, or Mandarin, although I have a good deal of knowledge about the structures of those languages, ranging from the syntax to the phonology to a tiny bit of vocabulary. Bottom line is that no matter where you’re starting, you’ll learn.

I promised above that I would answer these questions:

Why does the author say Javanese, which sounds wrong to most Americans, and Persian instead of Farsi, and Malay instead of Indonesian, and Hindi-Urdu as if it’s a single language, and Mandarin instead of Chinese?

So here are the answers:

  • Javanese — not a typo for Japanese! — is the indigenous language spoken by 95 million people on Java, which is not only the most populous island of Indonesia but the most populous island in the world! And yet most of us Americans know nothing at all about it except for a vague sense that coffee comes from there,
  • Why Persian instead of Farsi? The slightly oversimplified answer is that it’s the same as why we say Spanish instead of Español, German instead of Deutsch, and French instead of Français: we‘re speaking or writing English, not those other languages!
  • What’s with Malay, which very very few Americans have ever heard of? And yet it’s spoken by 275 million people and is the ninth most spoken language in the world! The answer is that Indonesian is really Malay, but for political reason it gets a separate name (like Dutch vs. Flemish or Portuguese vs. Galician). For a variety of reasons that you can read about in detail in Dorren’s book, the Indonesian independence movement in 1947 decided to pick the clean and simple Malay as their national language rather than Dutch (the language of the colonialist oppressors) or Javanese (the extremely difficult language of the largest island).
  • And aren’t Hindi and Urdu really two separate languages? After all, Hindi is written in the Devanagari alphabet and Urdu in Arabic alphabet, aren’t they? Well, yes and no. Urdu’s script isn’t precisely Arabic, but more importantly a language is speech, not writing, as Dorren points out in several places in Babel. Writing is merely a representation of speech, and you can represent speech in many different writing systems without changing the language one whit. The fact is that Hindi and Urdu are just two dialects of the same language, which we called Hindustani when I was a kid. For purely political and religious reasons we now have the pretense of two separate languages with separate names, but they’re not really separate languages.
  • Conversely, there is a widespread myth that many different Chinese languages are just dialects of the same language. Dorren explains clearly why we need to say Mandarin rather than simply Chinese; it’s exactly the same point as Hindi-Urdu, just in reverse.

I do need to point that Dorren does not write stuffy technical prose. Babel is definitely meant to be read by the general reader, and you will be engaged and amused throughout. Of course there are readers who disagree with me, some with valid points and some with dubious ones, so I’m going to devote tomorrow’s post to a discussion of reader reviews on Amazon. Stay tuned.



Categories: Books, Linguistics

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