Babel: Around the World in Twenty Languages

Babel: Around the World in Twenty Languages

by Gaston Dorren


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

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802128799
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date: 12/04/2018
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 1,211,090
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 8.80(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Gaston Dorren is a linguist, journalist, and polyglot. He speaks Dutch, Limburgish, English, German, French, and Spanish, and reads nine more languages. He is the author of Lingo: Around Europe in Sixty Languages, as well as two books in Dutch and the app, The Language Lover’s Guide to Europe. Dorren lives in the Netherlands.

Read an Excerpt

When people speak Japanese, their gender matters a great deal. A good number of words and grammatical constructions are associated with either women or men. For starters, women are more likely to use slightly longer versions of words that make them—the words, and consequently the speakers—sound polite. Think of it as not only saying the refined word ‘luncheon’ instead of the more workaday ‘lunch’, but making the difference systematic by also saying ‘tableon’ instead of ‘table’ and ‘flowereon’ instead of ‘flower’. In Japanese, this politeness syllable is added not at the end, but at the front: hana ‘flower’ becomes ohana.

Next, women and men will use different pronouns to refer to themselves: while watashi is a formal word for ‘I’ or ‘me’ that both genders can use, atashi is clearly a women’s word and ore, boku and oira are men’s. Both genders will use the word for ‘be’ differently: in a sentence like ‘this is a spider’, men will include da for ‘is’ (‘this da a spider’), whereas women will omit it (‘this a spider’). They will use different interjections: for example, ‘Hey, you’ translates as Nē, chotto for women, but as Oi chotto or yō chotto for men; both men and women can use ā where English would have ‘oh’ (as in ‘Oh, how beautiful’), but only women may also choose ara or . Men may pronounce the diphthong /ai/ (rhyming with English lie) as /ē/ (rhyming with lay), whereas it would be unladylike for a woman to do so.

Speakers do not exactly break a hard-and-fast grammar rule when using elements normally used by the opposite gender, but they certainly break a social convention: they bend both a rule and their gender.

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