Babel: Around the World in Twenty Languages

Gaston Dorren

Profile Books 2018
A book review by Danny Yee © 2020
Babel is a tour of the world's twenty most popular languages, measured counting second language speakers as well as native speakers. But while each chapter gives brief summary information about a language, it focuses quite narrowly on one particular linguistic topic, sometimes using that language just as illustration.

The opening chapter, on Vietnamese, is the most personal, looking at Dorren's attempts to learn the language and the challenges of language learning more generally. This is not representative of the other chapters, which have only passing personal mentions.

The chapter on Malay takes a broad look at linguistic diversity within countries, looking at different scenarios for how that can contribute to political tensions. Dorren generally praises the Indonesian approach.

The chapter on Russian focuses on Proto-Indo-European, taking a Russian sentence and looking at how cognates for its words can be found in English or other related languages.

The chapter on Bengali looks at scripts, explaining the concept of an abugida — halfway between an alphabet and a syllabary, with vowels marked on consonants — and exploring the history of South Asian scripts and why there are so many of them.

And so forth.

Dorren is a non-specialist, and most of his chapters are clearly — and, to his credit, quite openly — based on a handful of secondary sources (so Unger, Moser and Hannas for the chapter on Mandarin, debunking myths about Chinese writing). Given the breadth of material covered it is not surprising if he stumbles occasionally, but I only spotted a few things that seemed wrong. I'm pretty sure that when Malaysians and Indonesians choose to speak English or Cantonese with one another, for example, that has little to do with the vocabulary differences between Malay and Indonesian.

It's not a useful reference at all, but Babel is a lot of fun and offers an easy entry to a broad range of linguistic topics.

July 2020

External links:
- buy from (UK)
- buy from or
- share this review on Facebook or Twitter
Related reviews:
- Gaston Dorren - Lingo: A Language Spotter's Guide to Europe
- books about linguistics
%T Babel
%S Around the World in Twenty Languages
%A Dorren, Gaston
%I Profile Books
%D 2018
%O paperback, sources, index
%G ISBN-13 9781781256411
%P 361pp