Of the six-and-a-half thousand languages still alive in the world today (give or take, and counting down quite rapidly), Limburgish linguist Gaston Dorren estimates that a working knowledge of the 20 biggest ‘lingua francas’ would enable us to converse with half the global population in their mother tongues. That number pushes up to 75 per cent if you allow for second-language speakers; and 90 per cent if you include all nations that use one or more of them in central government.
From Vietnamese (with 85 million speakers) to Persian (110 million), to Malay (275 million) and Arabic (375 million), his survey arrives at Hindi- Urdu, Spanish, Mandarin and English – proficiency in all of which, he reckons, one could ‘navigate most of the world, without any need for an interpreter’.
Each of his digestible chapters begins with a cheatsheet on things such as what each language calls itself, where it comes from, its script, loanwords and other tidbits, and then continues th a case study of a particular linguistic feature: Korean and soundsymbolism; Punjabi and intonation; Swahili and ‘Africa’s nonchalant multilingualism’.
Dorren – obviously an instinctively very capable linguist (he speaks six languages, and reads a further nine) – took up Vietnamese just for this book (and to impress his cleaning lady). Almost all its words are monosyllabic; but then it is dependent on ‘the big, fat, singing elephant in the room that bedevils most East Asian languages: tone’. outside Vietnam, speaking it is essentially ‘a party trick’, though it apparently makes it easier to learn Chinese (not that anything he says makes that seem tempting).
Likewise, we learn that almost everyone who speaks Japanese lives in Japan. That for all its supposed ‘academisation’, in France there are at least 12 dialects, and eight more regional languages. That Tajik Persian once went through three scripts in a little over ten years. That parts of Javanese are ‘pathological’. And that German is statistically, verifiably, a ‘weirdo’. When looking at Portuguese’s overwhelming international success he holds a mirror up to Dutch and asks why it failed to achieve the same, despite some similar advantages.
Dorren cheerfully self- identifies as one who ‘spent [his] youth studying Latin rather than doing healthy outdoor sports,’ but Babel is written in a deft and entertaining manner. He’s not too proud to say he’s had some ‘fun’ with Google Translate.
Addressing the interested layman he has done a great job of condensing much unreadably serious scholarship into plain English. The chapter on Russian is a little thorny (‘To compensate, let’s look at passive participles...’), but the text is mercifully light on foreign script and by and large there are few technical longueurs.
Nor does he get bogged down in politics. While Dorren is, perforce, unflinching in his view that respect for linguistic minorities is ‘an ethical imperative’, he also acknowledges that ‘linguistic diversity is great, except when you’re in the business of running a country’. His chapters on Malay and Tamil are particularly strong on the subject of how languages can end up being used as battle lines between ethnic antagonists.
As for English, Dorren believes it is almost unassailable already. Despite its lack of any inherent qualities for supremacy, and its drawbacks as a foreign language (high number of vowel sounds, ‘whimsical’ spelling, hectic vocabulary), and though it only relatively recently saw off big competitors such as French and Russian, it’s too widespread and too embedded now to brook much challenge (and Mandarin is ‘just too damn difficult’). English is the lingua franca from Antarctica to the Moon; 80 per cent of all scholarly articles worldwide are published in it; Chinese children learn it before they’ve even finished learning their own language. It is the capstone of the Babel tower. Only the emergence of a machine-interpretation ‘Babel chip’ might end its dominance – though this, Dorren warns wryly, risks making Britons even less adept at learning languages than they are now.
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