So Basque is an ergative language! Well, I never. I couldn’t have told you that a week ago. I even know now what that means (more or less). And, well… so much for Basque. Moving along, then… In Lingo, Gaston Dorren speeds around Europe, giving each of his chosen 60-odd languages three or four pages’ attention before striding off again. Brisk doesn’t begin to describe it. Each language is introduced by means of one quirk, or in a simple picture sharpened by viewing through one particular historic/grammatical/circumstantial prism — the ideology that drives Sweden’s pronoun wars, say, or why Spaniards always seem to be talking so quickly, or Ossetian’s peculiar position as sole European representative of the Iranian language group. And how on earth did Scots Gaelic end up with so many silent vowels? And then onto the next…
But if you believe Umberto Eco, ‘The language of Europe is translation.’ And certainly much of what’s revealing in Lingo is to be found not in the narratives or mechanics of individual languages but in the interface between them, in their familial relations and the friction whenever they attempt to communicate. Languages influence each other by invasion (military or cultural) or immigration, by topographical contiguity, or quirks of historical chance; but also, of course, through the bonds of close family relations — the sprawling family descended from the mighty eight-case PIE, Proto-Indo-European.
An alertness to common ancestries means that there are many etymological pleasures to be had from this book, if you’re so inclined — like the kinship between the Romanian ‘leave’ and the Portuguese ‘arrive’, from a common root word meaning ‘fold’, which has reached its modern descendants, respectively, through the idea of packing up tents before you leave, or furling up sails as you arrive. Lingo is full of such treats.
But languages, we all know, are shifting things, and Dorren shows us only a snapshot moment — his languages apparently well-defined, but actually contingent, and often fragile. Great languages can become small ones alarmingly fast. Indeed, sometimes it takes just a moment to wipe out a language altogether, as was the case of Dalmatian, which died abruptly in 1898 when its last speaker was exploded by a landmine. Somewhere a language dies every couple of weeks. Eventually even English will make way for another big beast.
So where do today’s English-speakers fit in? All over Europe young people leave school well-coached in a whole smorgasbord of languages, ready to venture into the world with a rucksack full of useful linguistic freight. Here in the UK, however, the average bloke is likely to have a very, um, bijou collection of languages, and may well feel pretty beleaguered when faced with someone from another linguistic clan, and the maelstrom, the veritable avalanche of potential confusions each new language brings with it. We typically leave languages to particular aficionados, ardent linguistic fetishists; to most, the idea that one ought to fit oneself out with an arsenal of useful languages is utter bosh.
English is a fantastically kleptomaniac language, a tangle of major influences (having been so successfully, repeatedly invaded), glistening with words appropriated from friends, neighbours, occasional visitors. The paragraph above is studded with loanwords from at least 17 languages: Dutch (beleaguered), Romansh (avalanche), Hungarian (coach), possibly Frisian (freight), and so on. Dorren’s amusing tour of Europe’s linguistic landscape certainly heightens an awareness of the eccentricities and flexibilities of English, and the things we non-linguists may not have spotted. (Our prepositions come before their nouns, yes — except they sometimes don’t! You’ll find a postposition in my third sentence.)
Other languages’ economy, cleverness and precision show us the limitations of our own, too. Yes, we manage very nicely without the ‘consonant lenition’ of Welsh or Manx, but, oh, to have reflexive pronouns! We could then usefully distinguish between ‘Mary punched the police-woman, grabbed her bicycle and raced off’ and ‘Mary punched the policewoman, grabbed her bicycle and raced off’, where I intend the policewoman’s bicycle by one and Mary’s own by the other. We get along fine without cases, though (apparently they’re on their way out, anyway); Dorren’s especially keen on the caselessness of the Bulgarians.
No, not the ‘Bulgarians’ — I should have said ‘Bulgarian speakers’; but how often we do this, and how thoughtlessly. The tie between language and nationhood is strong, even if in practice it’s misleading. Indeed, of all Europe’s languages, Icelandic is the only one whose use has precise boundaries that can be mapped exactly onto the national borders. Icelandic, the perpetual exception, is also exceptionally stable. Iceland’s isolation and strong internal social networks, plus the lack of a youth culture pushing at the edges of language use, means that Icelandic has changed less in eight centuries than English has in two.
Lingo lacks the attraction of an overriding synthesis, but these fragmentary stories are full of charm and pleasing detail. Big ideas of linguistics lurk on the fringes, but Dorren mostly keeps them in check. It wouldn’t do to alarm his readers unduly. You know what the English are like…
Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £10.99 Tel: 08430 600033. Daniel Hahn has translated Philippe Claudel and José Saramago and is national programme director of the British Centre for Literary Translation.