18 November 2015
Lingo by Gaston Dorren
Whether you're a frequent visitor to Europe or just an armchair traveler, the surprising and extraordinary stories in Lingo will forever change the way you think about the continent, and may even make you want to learn a new language.
Lingo spins the reader on a whirlwind tour of sixty European languages and dialects, sharing quirky moments from their histories and exploring their commonalities and differences. Most European languages are descended from a single ancestor, a language not unlike Sanskrit known as Proto-Indo-European (or PIE for short), but the continent's ever-changing borders and cultures have given rise to a linguistic and cultural diversity that is too often forgotten in discussions of Europe as a political entity. Lingo takes us into today's remote mountain villages of Switzerland, where Romansh is still the lingua franca, to formerly Soviet Belarus, a country whose language was Russified by the Bolsheviks, to Sweden, where up until the 1960s polite speaking conventions required that one never use the word "you" in conversation, leading to tiptoeing questions of the form: "Would herr generaldirektör Rexed like a biscuit?"
Spanning six millenia and sixty languages in bite-size chapters, Lingo is a hilarious and highly edifying exploration of how Europe speaks.
Being a book person, words and languages are things I've always found interesting (not nearly as much as my friend Kate, who studies linguistics, specifically how people tell each other where to put things [actual things, not euphemistic things]). I'm not fluent in any of my second languages (German and French, which makes the idea of them being second languages silly) but I do like the sounds and quirks of each language, what makes them all different from one another.
I happened across Lingo: Around Europe in Sixty Languages while looking through Edelweiss catalogs. This was apparently published in the UK last year and then picked up for US publication by Atlantic Monthly Press. Just from reading the description I was hooked. I had no idea there were at least sixty languages in Europe. (Yes, insert "ignorant American" joke here.)
Each language chapter is truly bite-size. Dorren focuses on what makes each language interesting, whether that is the language's resurrection like that of Manx or Cornish, or it's isolation like Channel Islands Norman. Even the country's history gives shape to a chapter; the chapter on Lithuanian is narrated in contrasting dictatorship/revolutionary styles (Comrades!). At the end of each chapter, Dorren points out words that have been "borrowed" by the English language and terms that are extremely unique to that language. I got a kick out of the Icelandic chapter when the unique word was the "Christmas Book Flood" (I'm not even going to try and spell it in Icelandic) which was a topic in an early Book Riot podcast.
Now, if you're not up on all your grammatical forms of speech you might have to do some Googling or go find Grammar Girl's site or something. The book does assume that you remember what predicates and cases and so on actually are (not what you think they are, trust me, I fell into that trap). But Lingo is a really fun, quick read and, since the holidays are coming up, it would make the perfect gift for a word or trivia lover.
Lingo by Gaston Dorren will be available in the US on December 1, 2015.
Dear FTC: I received a DRC of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.