Lingo: Around Europe in Sixty Languages

Lingo: Around Europe in Sixty Languages

by Gaston Dorren


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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802125712
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date: 12/13/2016
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 210,921
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.00(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 two books in Dutch, and the creator of an app, The Language Lover's Guide to Europe. Dorren lives in the Netherlands.

Read an Excerpt


The life of PIE


Once upon a time, thousands of years ago (nobody knows quite when), in a faraway land (nobody knows quite where), there was a language that no one speaks today and whose name has been forgotten, if it ever had one. Children learned this language from their parents, just as children today do, and they in turn passed it on to their children, and so on and so forth, for generation after generation. In the course of all the centuries, the old language underwent constant change. It was a bit like the game of telephone: the last player hearing something quite different from what the first actually said. In this case, the last players are us.

And not only those of us who speak English, of course. Those who speak Dutch, too – which is practically the same thing. And German, which is not so different either. And Spanish and Polish and Greek, because if you look closely enough you'll see that even they look a bit like English. Further afield there are other languages, like Armenian and Kurdish and Nepalese, where you have to look quite a bit harder still to see the family resemblance. But each and every one of them emerged from a language that was spoken by a people whose name we don't know, perhaps sixty centuries ago. And because no one knows what they called their language, a name has been invented for it: PIE.

PIE stands for Proto-Indo-European. This is not a perfect name. The word proto ('first') implies that no language preceded it, which is not the case, while the label 'Indo-European' suggests a language area that's confined to India to Europe. In fact, almost everyone in the Americas speaks a language that's descended from PIE, while in India more than 200 million people speak languages that have no historical ties to PIE at all. That said, more than 95 per cent of Europeans now speak an Indo-European language – in other words, a language evolved from PIE.

PIE and its speakers are shrouded in the mists of time, but linguists are working hard to dispel the fog by reconstructing how PIE may have sounded, on the basis of its descendants. Old documents in ancient languages such as Latin, Greek and Sanskrit are particularly useful for this, but there's a role for more recent sources, too, ranging from Irish ogham inscriptions (fourth century) and the Old English Beowulf (ninth century or thereabouts) to the first written remnants of Albanian (fifteenth century) and even modern Lithuanian dialects.

To reconstruct the PIE word for 'tongue', for example, linguists will look at the words that these later languages use, such as lezu, liezuvis, tengae, tunga, dingua, gjuhë, käntu, jezyku and jihva (taken from Armenian, Lithuanian, Old Irish, Swedish, Old Latin, Albanian, Tocharian A, Old Slavic and Sanskrit, respectively). At first glance these have little in common. But if you compare series like these in a systematic way, all sorts of patterns emerge. It gradually becomes clear that language A has changed ('corrupted', if you like) PIE words consistently in one way, whereas language B has changed them consistently in another. Once you've identified these processes, you can work your way back to the original word.

This kind of detective work has yielded a great deal of information. Unfortunately, though, the results are not greatly enlightening for non-linguists. 'Tongue', as it turns out, appears to have been a word linguists write as *d??hwéh2s in PIE. The asterisk here signifies that the word has been reconstructed on the basis of later languages. The other characters all represent a sound – but as to which sound, only specialists can tell (and, even for them, some sounds remain obscure). The result, in short, is rather abstract and not readily comprehensible.

Is there any way to bridge the divide between the language of our distant ancestors and ourselves? Can we not make PIE more accessible, its speakers more human? Can we bring the language and the people to life? The answer is yes, to some extent. And Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, is a good place to do it.

Vilnius is the birthplace of Marija Gimbutas (1921–1994), a linguist who, in the 1950s, came up with the so-called 'Kurgan hypothesis', which located the speakers of PIE in the vast steppes north of the Black and Caspian seas (today's Ukraine and southern Russia) around 3700 BC. 'Kurgan' is a Turkic word for a tumulus, and is applied to ancient burial mounds that are found all over this region. Gimbutas proposed that the culture that produced some of these mounds – a culture sufficiently developed to have tamed horses and even ridden chariots – would have been the source of PIE. Though her theory is not entirely uncontroversial, the gist of it has gained wide acceptance.

And if you're keen to get up close and personal with PIE, Vilnius is your best destination, because of all the world's living languages, Lithuanian is the one that most closely resembles PIE. Today's Lithuanians might not be able to chat with the Indo-Europeans of old, but they would be able to get a grip on the language a lot faster than a Greek or Nepali, let alone a Brit. The similarities are many. 'Son', for example, is sunus in Lithuanian and *suh2nus in PIE. Esmi in PIE means 'I am', as it does in some Lithuanian dialects (though the modern standard language of Vilnius uses esu instead). The Lithuanian language has preserved the sounds of many PIE words, while other languages have moved on – in the case of English, in a move so drastic that it's known as the Great Vowel Shift. Consider the word 'five', for example. Both the English word and the Lithuanian penki are descendants of *penkwe. But only an expert can spot any resemblance between *penkwe and the English 'five', while anyone can see the likeness in the Lithuanian word.

Perhaps even more striking are the grammatical similarities. PIE had eight grammatical cases (in which nouns take different forms), and Lithuanian still has seven. Other languages, such as Polish, also have seven cases, but only in Lithuanian do the cases still sound a lot like those in PIE. Similarly, like PIE, some Lithuanian dialects have not just the regular singular and plural forms, but also a special 'dual': a plural referring specifically to two things. This is rare among modern Indo-European languages, Slovene being the major – and proud – exception.

Verb conjugations, syntax, emphasis patterns, suffixes – many features of Lithuanian testify to its PIE origins. All of them have survived for two hundred generations with relatively little alteration. The great majority of European languages stem from PIE, as we'll see throughout this book, but none are as closely linked as Lithuanian. So it's fair to say that Lithuanians are the undisputed European champions of telephone.


The separated siblings

Finno-Ugric Languages

What language do Finnish tourists in Hungary speak? 'English' might be your immediate answer, and you would probably be right. Finnish and Hungarian are related (they belong to the Finno-Ugric family, sometimes known as the Uralic), but they are simply too different for Finns to have a hope of making themselves understood in Budapest if they stick to their mother tongue. This linguistic distance reflects not geographic distance, but historical distance. Living far apart needn't be a problem – as Australians and the English prove. Spending a very long time apart, however, is a different proposition.

And the period of separation between the Finns and the Hungarians is a long time indeed: their linguistic ancestors went their separate ways more than 4,000 years ago. At that time, the changes that were to make English different from Russian and Greek and Hindi were yet to take place.

And yet, if you look very closely, there are many similarities between Finnish and Hungarian. For one thing, they have a few hundred socalled cognates, literally 'born-together' words, which share the same origin. A famous sentence to illustrate this is 'The living fish swims underwater.' The Finnish translation is Elävä kala ui veden alla; in Hungarian it runs Eleven hal úszkál a víz alatt. With other cognates, the resemblance can be rather less obvious. Historical linguists are positive, for example, that viisi and öt ('five') are cognate pairs, as are juoda and iszik ('drink'), vuode and ágy ('b ed'), and sula- and olvad ('melt'). But it's not so clear to the rest of us, even to a Finn or Hungarian.

So how can linguists be sure that the connections are there? Well, there are some twenty other languages, most of them small and spoken in northwest Russia, that form a bridge over the abyss that separates Hungarian and Finnish. The word for 'five', for instance, takes on forms such as viit (in Estonian), vit (Komi), wet (Khanty) and ät (Mansi), a sequence that neatly joins the Finnish viisi to the Hungarian öt.

And vocabulary is of course just one aspect of language. When it comes to phonology (the sounds of a language) and grammar, the kinship of Hungarian and Finnish is easier to see. In terms of sounds, both have a large set of vowels, which is exceptional in itself. More tellingly, among these vowels are two that English and most other languages don't have – they are equivalent to eu and u in French, or ö and ü in German. What's more, both languages divide their vowels into two sets, and all vowels within each individual word have to belong to the same set. Finally, all words are stressed on the first syllable.

Finnish and Hungarian also share at least six grammatical features that are rare in Europe. Both of them ignore gender to the point where they have only one word for 'he' and 'she' (hän in Finnish, o in Hungarian). Both have more than twelve cases. Both have postpositions rather than prepositions. Both have a great love of suffixes – a word along the lines of establishmentarianistically, consisting mostly of suffixes, wouldn't raise an eyebrow. Possession is expressed not with a verb but with a suffix; instead of saying 'I have it', they say something that could be rendered in English as 'it is on me'. And finally, numerals are always followed by a singular ('six dog' rather then 'six dogs'); if the number has been made explicit, why go to the extra trouble of modifying what follows?

Surely all these similarities are enough to convince you that Finnish and Hungarian are siblings? But here's a twist. Nearly all of the phonological and grammar similarities between these two are also shared by Turkish. So you could think there's another family member here. And that's exactly what linguists used to think, and some still do. Most, however, now feel that in spite of the similarities, the evidence is inconclusive. They prefer to keep Turkish separate from the other two, arguing that the similarities are explained partly by chance, partly by influence. (Hungarians and speakers of Turkic languages have a history of contact that goes quite far back.)

Yet it could be true. We just can't be sure. If only there were languages, however small and endangered, to bridge the gap between Turkish and Hungarian. They may never have existed, or they've become extinct. We'll probably never know.


Pieces of a broken pitcher


Romansh. Bet you've never heard of that one. Spoken in Switzerland, it's the country's fourth national language, alongside French, Italian, and a weird form of German. But how did it come to be spoken in such a small area? For the answer to that, we need to travel back in time, twenty centuries or so.

Rome is at the height of its power. Like an almighty earthenware pitcher, the Roman Empire contains the entire Mediterranean region, with the Strait of Gibraltar as its mouth. But pottery doesn't last forever: in the fifth century, the empire falls apart. The east, with its predominantly Greek culture, manages to stay intact; though steadily crumbling, it will preserve its unity for many centuries to come. But the western half shatters fully and forever. And with it, Latin, too, splinters into many different pieces. With less and less contact between regions, their speech evolves into separate dialects. Meanwhile, various different tribes, each with their own language, settle all over the former empire. Some of them take up the local Latin, then give it their own flavour.

These shards of Latin eventually developed into the Romance languages: the five big ones – Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese and the eastern outlier, Romanian – and a plethora of others. But the emergence of the Big Five took a very long time. In the immediately post-Roman centuries, Latin disintegrated not into five, but into dozens of languages, and as many dialects as there are drops of water in a pitcher. Traversing the territories of the former Roman Empire around the year 1200, you would find no two cities that shared the same language. Every last village had its own village Latin.

The rise of what we now call the Romance languages began some time later. Kings such as Denis of Portugal and Alfonso X of Spain, literary greats such as Dante and institutions like the Académie Française helped to glue the shards of local dialects into languages that were used over larger areas, mostly in writing at first. The Big Five were the most successful: they became the official languages of nation states, and even – in the case of Spanish, Portuguese and French – of new empires.

But other groups of Roman dialects also worked their way to full-blown language status. In Spain, two minority Romance languages are now nationally recognised: Catalan on the east coast, and Galician in the northwest corner. Just east of Galician can be found a group of closely related languages – Asturian, Leonese and (in Portugal) the small Mirandese – that play only regional roles. In France, in addition to French (with its many different dialects), Occitan, Corsican and Arpitan are all separate languages, whatever Paris may think. In Italy, where every dialect is the pride of its region, some can also stake a claim to separate language status. Sardinian has the best credentials, but Venetian and a good ten others have reasonably strong cases. Three varieties of Romanian have emerged that may well be considered independent languages: Aromanian, spoken in various southern Balkan countries; Megleno-Romanian, used in Greece and Macedonia; and IstroRomanian, spoken on the Croatian peninsula of Istria but now almost extinct. Also native to Istria is Istriot, a Romance language of obscure lineage. Now spoken only by a few hundred older people, it will probably die out before the experts have solved the riddle of its pedigree. Other Romance languages have already expired: Dalmatian, in the late nineteenth century, was the most recent death in the family.

So where does this leave Romansh? Well, the situation is complicated. Romansh is recognised by the Swiss constitution and some 35,000 people in the canton of Graubünden speak the language, but in forms that vary from valley to valley. Even a simple word like 'I' varies from eu to ja. 'How nice' is che bel in one dialect, tgei bi in another. The upshot is that Romansh speakers from one village have great difficulty understanding villagers who live just a few kilometres away. Had all these dialects not been so isolated for centuries, they would have been absorbed into bigger languages. Had they had their own city, to act as a cultural centre, they would have combined into a single language. Instead, they remain today what they always have been: splinters of the broken pitcher once called Latin.

So which dialect do Switzerland and Graubünden recognise as 'true' Romansh? Until a generation ago, the answer was: not one of them, but all of them. School books were published in five different variants. It was only in 1982, after a series of failed attempts, that these fragments were glued together into one standard language, Rumantsch Grischun (Graubünden Romansh). For reasons of neutrality, the commissioning body, the Lia Rumantscha (Romansh League), gave the job to an outsider, the German-speaking linguist Heinrich Schmid. The canton and the central government have embraced Schmid's creation with open arms, and they now publish laws and school books and all sorts of things in the new, unified language. But neutral or not, the standard language has failed to conquer the hearts of the dialect speakers. The majority of Graubünden municipalities still use their own local dialect as their first language.

And Romansh is not the only Romance language that has gone its own regional way. It belongs to a group of three such stubborn outsiders, together called the Rhaeto-Romance sub-family. The other two are spoken in Italy: Ladin and Friulian. Ladin, with its 30,000 speakers bordering the German and Italian language areas, is as hopeless a case as Romansh: every tiny village has a few hundred speakers who fully understand only each other. Friulian, by contrast, is a relatively standardised language. It has more than half a million speakers in the far northeast of Italy, including city dwellers, and a literature that far exceeds the bounds of regional novels and doggerel.


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Table of Contents

Introduction: What Europeans speak 11

Part 1 Next of tongue

Languages and their families

1 The life of PIE: Lithuanian 15

2 The separated siblings: Finno-Ugric Languages 20

3 Pieces of a broken pitcher: Romansh 24

4 Mother dearest: French 28

5 Know your Slovek from your Slovane: Slavic languages 33

6 The linguistic orphanage: Balkan languages 35

7 The tenth branch: Ossetian 40

Part 2 Past perfect discontinuous

Languages and their history

8 The peaceful expansionist?: German 45

9 Portugal's mother's tongue: Galician 50

10 A language in DK: Danish 54

11 The spoils of defeat: Channel Island Norman 57

12 Languages of exile: Karaim, Ladino and Yiddish 62

13 Frozen in time: Icelandic 67

Part 3 War and peace

Languages and politics

14 The democratic language: Norwegian 75

15 Two addresses to the people of Belarus: Belarus(s)ian 79

16 Kleinsteinish and its neighbours: Luxembourgish 82

17 Longing for languagehood: Scots and Frisian 85

18 Much a-du about you, and him: Swedish 91

19 Four countries - and more than a club: Catalan 96

20 Four languages and zero goodwill: Serbo-Croatian 101

Part 4 Werds, wirds, wurds…

Written and spoken

21 'Hácekl' - 'Bless you': Czech 107

22 Szczesny, Pszkit and Korzeniowski: Polish 110

23 Broad and slender tweets: Scots Gaelic 115

24 Learning your A to: Russian 120

25 Pin the name on the language: Following the clues 125

26 The Iberian machine gun: Spanish 130

27 Mountains of dialects: Slovene 134

28 Hide and speak?: Srieita and Anglo-Romani 140

Part 5 Nuts and bolts

Languages and their vocabulary

29 Export/Import: Greek 147

30 Arrival in Porto: Portuguese 152

31 Meet the Snorbs: Sorbian 155

32 From our Vasingtona correspondent: Latvian 158

33 Small, sweet, slim, sturdy, sexy, stupid little women: Italian 161

34 A snowstorm in a teacup: Sami 165

35 Deciphering the language of numbers: Breton 169

Part 6 Talking by the book

Languages and their grammar

36 Gender-bending: Dutch 175

37 A case history: Romani 179

38 A much-needed merger: Bulgarian-Slovak 184

39 Nghwm starts with a C: Welsh 188

40 Strictly ergative: Basque 194

41 Note to self: Ukrainian 199

Part 7 Intensive care

Languages on the brink and beyond

42 Networking in Monaco: Monégasque 205

43 A narrow escape: Irish 207

44 No laughing matter: Gagauz 213

45 The death of a language: Dalmatian 215

46 The church of Kernow: Cornish 218

47 Back from the brink: Manx 222

Part 8 Movers and shakers

Linguists who left their mark

48 Ludovít Štúr, the hero linguist: Slovak 229

49 The father of Albanology: Albanian 232

50 An unexpected standard: Germanic languages 236

51 The no-hoper: Esperanto 240

52 The national hero who wasn't: Macedonian 244

53 A godless alphabet: Turkish 247

Part 9 Warts and all

Linguistic portrait studies

54 Spell as you speak: Finnish 255

55 Romans north of Hadrian's Wall: Faroese 259

56 A meaningful silence: Sign languages 262

57 $$$: Armenian 268

58 Plain lonely: Hungarian 271

59 An Afro-Asiatic in Europe: Maltese 275

60 The global headache: English 277

Further reading 285

Acknowledgements 287

Photo credits 290

Index 292

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