Summary and book reviews of Babel by Gaston Dorren

Babel

Around the World in Twenty Languages

by Gaston Dorren

Babel by Gaston Dorren X
Babel by Gaston Dorren
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  • First Published:
    Dec 2018, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    Dec 17, 2019, 368 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Erin Lyndal Martin
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About this Book

Book Summary

Witty, fascinating and utterly compelling, Babel will change the way you look at and listen to the world and how it speaks.

English is the world language, except that most of the world doesn't speak it--only one in five people does. Dorren calculates that to speak fluently with half of the world's 7.4 billion people in their mother tongues, you would need to know no fewer than twenty languages. He sets out to explore these top twenty world languages, which range from the familiar (French, Spanish) to the surprising (Malay, Javanese, Bengali). Babel whisks the reader on a delightful journey to every continent of the world, tracing how these world languages rose to greatness while others fell away and showing how speakers today handle the foibles of their mother tongues. Whether showcasing tongue-tying phonetics or elegant but complicated writing scripts, and mind-bending quirks of grammar, Babel vividly illustrates that mother tongues are like nations: each has its own customs and beliefs that seem as self-evident to those born into it as they are surprising to the outside world.

Among many other things, Babel will teach you why modern Turks can't read books that are a mere 75 years old, what it means in practice for Russian and English to be relatives, and how Japanese developed separate "dialects" for men and women. Dorren lets you in on his personal trials and triumphs while studying Vietnamese in Hanoi, debunks ten widespread myths about Chinese characters, and discovers that Swahili became the lingua franca in a part of the world where people routinely speak three or more languages.

Family Many attempts have been made to place Japanese in a family (Altaic, Austronesian, even Dravidian), none ultimately convincing. The language may be a mix of those spoken by the archipelago's original inhabitants, known as Jōmon, and by the newcomers who arrived in the first millennium bce, named Yayoi.

Script Japanese uses a baffling trio of scripts – hiragana (the main alphabet with forty-six characters), katakana (with extra syllables for foreign words), and kanji (Chinese characters) – as well as romaji (Roman script). There is more on this in chapter 2b, following the chapter on Chinese characters.

Grammar Japanese words can take strings of suffixes. This 'agglutinative' character was a major reason why it was placed, along with Turkish, Korean and many smaller languages, in the Altaic family (a now discredited idea). Japanese has no grammatical gender, no plural and no articles. Verbs are conjugated, but not for person (I, you, et cetera). Adjectives are not ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Babel is a fun read for anyone, but will especially delight travelers and language-lovers. The information is accessible to longtime language scholars and casual readers alike; a delightful collection of 20 small windows to much larger worlds...continued

Full Review Members Only (655 words).

(Reviewed by Erin Lyndal Martin).

Media Reviews

NPR
Babel is an endlessly interesting book, and you don’t have to have any linguistic training to enjoy it… As joyful as it is educational, and above all, it’s just so much fun to read.

The Mail On Sunday (UK)
Hugely readable… Dorren is both an intimidatingly gifted linguist and a wonderfully eloquent writer. You couldn’t wish for a better guide to the wonders of the world’s bewildering array of tongues.

The TImes (UK)
Eye-opening and thoroughly entertaining… [Dorren] is wonderful company: chatty, informative, enthusiastic… Babel is a story not of nouns and consonants, but of empires and continents. Language is power. Sometimes it is a matter of life, lust, and death.

Library Journal
There's little consistency of presentation in this work from one section to the next, and grammatical terms are often not defined. Readers with a nonacademic interest in global languages might enjoy this buffet. Bon appétit!

Booklist
A fascinating foray into global linguistics.

Kirkus Reviews
A deft, spirited exploration of the connection of language to a nation's identity and culture.

Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Word nerds of every strain will enjoy this wildly entertaining linguistic study.

Reader Reviews

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Beyond the Book

Animal Sounds in Different Languages

Illustration of cat sounds from languages around the worldIn Babel: Around the World in 20 Languages, Gaston Dorren writes about how Korean includes separate words for different kinds of meows. One word refers to the ordinary cry, and a different word is used to describe a more urgent vocalization. With this information, Dorren illustrates how sounds are indicative of a language's idiosyncrasies.

The way people write out animal sounds varies from language to language, but some things remain the same. In any language, these noises frequently consist of the same word repeated twice. The pigs that "oink oink" in English go "knor knor" in Dutch, "ggool ggool" in Korean, and "boo boo" in Japanese. Similarly, if an animal has a sound that isn't repeated, that also holds true from language to language...

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