Lingo: Around Europe in Sixty Languages

Polyglot and language journalist Gaston Dorren has created an anecdotal crash course on European linguistics with his book Lingo. Covering the idiosyncrasies of 50-plus languages, from the spelling of Scots Gaelic to the counting conventions of Breton, Dorren weaves tales of conquest, social mores and isolating landscapes with remarkable ease.

This current edition of Lingo has been updated from the one published in 2014 under a slightly different name — Lingo: A Language-Spotter’s Guide to Europe, which critics said was something of a misnomer, given that there were only a few instances where Dorren explained how to spot linguistic differences by sight. Around Europe in Sixty Languages seems like a more accurate subtitle. The new edition, currently out with the UK in mind and with a US edition planned soon, contains small but important textual changes, according to the book’s editor Peter Blackstock.

Dorren explains historical context such as the fracturing of Latin with the fall of the Roman Empire, and the pasting-together again to make a unified French, for example. Icelandic is an interesting case — thanks in large part to its isolated geography, its devotion to literacy and its limited but social population, Icelandic is the only language of the bunch to have preserved itself relatively unchanged since the time of the Icelandic sagas in the twelfth century. Languages such as Yiddish emerged from a different sort of history — one of displacement and persecution, Hebrew and Aramaic words mixed with Germanic roots along with Slavic and Romance vocabulary.

The book is not terribly in-depth, providing snapshots of places and languages instead. For people with the right level of interest in language, Lingo is fascinating. Serious linguists may find the book too basic, unless, of course, they’ve lost track of 40 or so of the languages they studied briefly in school a decade ago — or if they want some short, semi-amusing anecdotes to regale their friends with at the next orthographically-themed party conversation or booze-fueled phonetic discussion that arises (yes, these actually exist). 

One such anecdote, for example: researcher Francois Pellegrino and his colleagues discovered in 2011 that “Spaniards utter an average of 7.82 syllables per second, as against 6.17 for English speakers and 5.97 for Germans; automatic weapons like Uzis and Kalashnikovs fire about 10 rounds per second.” Linguistic stereotypers everywhere, rejoice. However, there’s a twist: Spanish syllables are shorter, on average just over two sounds — or phonemes — long. When you’re looking at language speed by the amount of sounds pronounced rather than the syllables, “German, English and Spanish speakers alike all pronounce between 16 and 17 phonemes per second — the Spaniards even a fraction less than the other two.”

To get an idea of how this works, compare the spoken sound of the French loan word ratatouille (ra-ta-tu-e, four syllables, seven phonemes) to Swedish loan smorgasbord (smorg-hs-bord, three syllables, eleven phonemes — for lack of more exact spelling, the h here represents the schwa, a blurred, unstressed catch-all vowel common in English). You can say ratatouille in a way that sounds much faster and more like a machine gun, but obviously, if you’re counting the phonemes your mouth can physically get out in a given time period, smorgasbord is the winner.

By the way, you will not find this explanation in the book, and, in fact, if you’ve never heard of a phoneme, you’re going to be a bit lost in the chapter on Spanish. Dorren’s ideal reader is the kind of person with some knowledge of linguistics, but not so much that they’ve already studied up on it exhaustively.

To tie all his subjects together, Dorren describes the common roots of European languages, explaining that of all modern languages, Lithuanian probably comes closest to Proto-Indo-European, the common ancestor of an entire continent (and farther) as far as linguists can approximate it. There are ten descendants of Indo-European that currently exist, and all of these linguistic subfamilies still exist within Europe: Romance, Germanic, Celtic, Slavic, Baltic (Latvian and Lithuanian), Hellenic (or Greek, since Modern Greek is the only surviving language of this branch), Thracian (now represented solely by Armenian), Illyric (now represented solely by Albanian), Iranian (Ossetian, a descendant of Ancient Persian, is found in the Caucasus mountains) and Indic (Romani is spoken by Roma people throughout Europe).

Then there is Basque, the language isolate of unknown origins. “In the last few centuries,” notes Dorren, the liquid flood of Indo-European languages “have engulfed most of the globe, and now half the world speaks an Indo-European language: English, Spanish, Portuguese, French, the list goes on.” Basque, however, is “a mountain rising above the waters, standing all alone in a sea of Indo-European,” unmoved despite surrounding conquests and changes to language. Not, of course, entirely unmoved, and there is still some minor debate among linguists as to whether or not Basque emerged from a language family predating Indo-European. But, again, this is not a book meant to cover such topics exhaustively — a good approximation of generally-accepted theory will do.

To more fully describe the linguistic landscape, Dorren covers endangered languages such as Manx, a dead one (Dalmatian) and an invented one (Esperanto). The chapter on English is called “The global headache,” and it lays out the various difficulties of this language, the foremost being its plethora of vowels. There are 20 for British speakers of English; this number may dwindle slightly depending on exactly where in the world you hail from — compare this with some varieties of Spanish, which contains only five vowels.

Partly due to this excess, English “words on the page reveal little about what they are going to sound like.” With 20 distinct vowel sounds and only five vowel letters, a, e, i, o and u, you begin to see the problem. Additionally, and just to begin with, English has absorbed the orthography of various loan words and anglified them. Most English speakers could not begin to tell you why “laugh”  is not pronounced lag, but laf, or why “motion”  is not pronounced motyon, but moshun. Then there is English grammar — mercifully sparse in terms of gender, case and inflection, which second-language learners struggle with, but rife with exceptions and small peculiarities.

From Yiddish to Romani to English, the book is entertaining. Now, if only I can remember all these anecdotes for my next party.