The Languages of the World

Kenneth Katzner

Routledge 2002
A book review by Danny Yee © 2003
Part one of The Languages of the World (30 pages) is a survey of the world's language families and part three (30 pages) is a country-by-country survey. But the bulk of it (300 pages) is in part two, an encyclopedia with entries on some 200 individual languages. Each of these contains a sample text in the language, given in the principal writing system (or sometimes systems) and then in translation, followed by some brief background notes on the language, typically touching on its status and history and ending with some examples of English words derived from it.

The result is a fun volume to browse in. The original language texts are mostly inscrutable, of course, but help to illustrate different writing systems. The source passages are a mixed bunch. Some are traditional or literary — Katzner has a penchant for Nobel Prize winners — sometimes self-contained poems but more often excerpts from longer works, which may prompt further exploration. Others are taken from text books; they are often passages on linguistics or history themselves. And the background information contains some fascinating tidbits: I was not aware, for example, that Bengali ranked sixth in the world for number of native speakers.

I can't recommend The Languages of the World as a reference, however. In a few places it is dated or misleading. A Taiwanese origin for the Austronesian languages is now broadly accepted, but here we find:

"The background and the details of the great Austronesian migrations are still largely a mystery. The original homeland of the people was no doubt somewhere in Asia, perhaps in India, present-day Malaysia or Indonesia, or even Taiwan."
A bigger problem is that there is simply no room for more than a few scattered facts on most languages. While there are five pages on English (with passages from Old and Middle English) and four on "Chinese" (covering Wu, Cantonese, et cetera as "dialects"), most of the entries have only a few paragraphs of background information. On Bemba, for example, we get no more than:
"Bemba is the most widely spoken language of Zambia. Its 3 million speakers live mainly in the northeastern part of the country. Bemba is another of the Bantu languages."
There is hardly anything on grammar or phonetics, with more of a focus on history and above all orthography, complementing the sample texts.

There is also no consistency in what information is provided. We are told that Gujarati and Assamese are constitutional languages of India, for example, and that Maithili (Bihari) is not, but left in the dark as to the status of Marathi, Bengali, Oriya, Telugu, Kannada, Tamil, or Malayalam, the other regional Indian languages covered.

The selection of languages is decidedly skewed. There are entries on a score of minority Russian languages (including Bashkir, Chuvash, Kalmyk, Mordvin, Udmurt, Mari, Komi, Nenets, Khanty, Buryat, Yaku, Evenki, and Chukchi) and an entry on Sibo, "spoken by a mere 40,000 people in western China", but no room is found for Balinese (with 4 million speakers in a popular tourist destination) or Minangkabau (7 million speakers). And there are entries on a dozen North American Indian languages, some with only a few hundred speakers, but not a single indigenous Papuan language. Tok Pisin merits an entry, while Aranda is the sole indigenous Australian language covered.

A minor gripe is that there are no cross-references from parts one and three into part two — when browsing the lists of languages belonging to a language group or spoken in a country, it would be useful to be able to see at once which are covered in more detail in part two. And a formatting error has resulted in some unexpected blank pages. But the layout of The Languages of the World is otherwise clean and attractive — the handling of the different writing systems is particularly impressive.

All of that probably gives too negative an impression. The Languages of the World really is a fun volume to browse in: linguists may turn up their noses at it, but for those who are simply curious its flaws are minor. It will have particular appeal for those intrigued by writing systems and the adaptation of alphabets for different languages.

May 2003

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%T The Languages of the World
%A Katzner, Kenneth
%I Routledge
%D 2002
%O paperback, 3rd edition, index
%G ISBN 0415250048
%P x,384pp