Certain languages prove just too slippery for some learners to grasp. Mark Twain famously struggled to master, or even make sense of, German. In 1880 he made light of its illogicalities and his agonies in “The Awful German Language”, an essay that has the power to raise a laugh from common readers and strike fear into German novices. “In early times,” Twain wrote, “some sufferer had to sit up with a toothache, and he put in the time inventing the German language.”
Of course, other learners are language sponges, capable of absorbing new tongues quickly and using them adeptly. One such person is Dutch linguist, journalist and polyglot Gaston Dorren. He speaks Dutch, Limburgish, English, French, Spanish, and, unlike Twain, German. As if this was not impressive enough, he reads nine more languages.
Three years ago Dorren published Lingo, a lively linguistic tour of Europe in 60 bite-sized chapters. Readers came away from it thoroughly entertained and much the wiser: up to speed about how major and minor European languages and dialects have developed, died out or returned from the grave; able to distinguish between Slovene and Slovakian or the Russian and Greek Cyrillic alphabets; and armed with trivia that ranged from the 20 words the Sami people have for snow to an array of colourful terms that have no English equivalent – such as the Portuguese pesamenteiro, or "funeral-crasher".
For his latest book, Babel: Around the World in Twenty Languages, Dorren slips out of the confines of a single continent and goes global. The 20 languages he focuses on are the most-spoken in the world: 75 per cent of people on this planet can communicate in one of "the Babel Twenty". With each chapter devoted to one language and one corresponding feature of it, Dorren's book explores the history, culture and nuts-and-bolts make-up of these lingua francas, together with their commonalities and singularities.
Dorren’s chapters constitute a countdown, beginning with the 20th-biggest language and working towards the world’s “linguistic superpower”. First up is Vietnamese, with 85 million speakers. Despite having nine different diacritics (“it’s a language for people with keen eyes”) and various other “gremlins” including a multitude of personal pronouns and a baffling word order, Dorren wants to learn it and so signs up for a three-week language course in Hanoi. He provides an account of his initial headway and his later downward spiral. At the end of the course he takes stock of his progress and glumly realises that he can say little and understand less.
In his chapter on Turkish (90 million speakers) Dorren condenses a thousand years of Middle Eastern history into a handful of pages. He then charts the country’s “language overthrow”, the radical transition from Ottoman Turkish to modern Turkish.
French, on the other hand, continues to be resistant to change. Dorren takes us back to the foundation of the Academie Francaise in 1635, with its mission to keep French “pure and eloquent”, before bringing us up to the present and showing how today’s guardians of the language are still slow to recognise regional dialects and quick to repel the insidious invasion of English words.
Japanese, we are told, has no grammatical gender – and yet there is, as the chapter’s title tells us, “linguistic gender apartheid”, for women and men are expected to speak in different “genderlects”. Women use separate pronouns to refer to themselves and longer versions of words to sound more polite. The code might have become less rigid in recent years, but Japanese novelists and translators still employ these conventions to convey characters’ genders. At fifth place is Arabic. “Arabs think the world of their language,” Dorren explains. But many outsiders who can’t speak it, he argues, view it as dauntingly alien – “the quintessential Otherish”. After acknowledging the existence of this stumbling block he then sets out to prove that the language is to some extent approachable due to similarities between certain Arabic and English words.
What follows is Babel's Concise Dictionary of Our Arabic, a handy eight-page lexicon containing the originals of words that English borrowed from Arabic. Some entries we can relate to intuitively (qtn – cotton, jamal – camel), others require us to do "a little etymologising".
Elsewhere Dorren shines a light on Spanish grammar, Bengali scripts, Korean ideophones and sub-Saharan African multilingualism. He reveals why Malay has been “a poisoned gift” for Malaysia, why Portuguese has spread and become a world language whereas Dutch has not, why Mandarin is the perfect language for wordplay, and why Javanese, spoken by 95 million people, could face extinction.
Dorren delivers his mini-lessons in a fun-filled way. Like Lingo before it, Babel is witty and informative, with linguistic jargon kept to a minimum, and page upon page of surprise facts, fascinating insight and droll analysis. There is the odd moot point (is the author cheating by treating Hindi and Urdu as one, not two, of the world's 20-largest languages?); and there is an error of judgement in the chapter on Farsi as Dorren tries to make the language and its complex history accessible by way of a chatty Q&A format – only he dumbs it down and falls flat.
In his last chapter on English, Dorren predicts that this “gateway” language will continue its dominance for the time being. Artificial intelligence may or may not take over. With luck, Dorren will have more than enough subject matter for another book.