Lingo: A Language Spotter's Guide to Europe

Gaston Dorren

Profile Books 2014
A book review by Danny Yee © 2018
Originally published in Dutch as Taaltoerisme (Language Tourism), Lingo is a potted tour of Europe's languages and some of their interesting features. Its sixty short chapters each pick out one topic about a language or language family for attention, making no attempt to be systematic, let alone comprehensive.

All the major European languages and most of the minor ones — Gagauz, Shelta and Anglo-Romani, Breton, and Manx, among others — get chapters, as do Turkish and the variety of sign languages. But these are never simple descriptions of the language. The first chapter, "The life of PIE: Lithuanian", has a bit on Lithuanian but is mostly a quick introduction to Proto Indo-European ("of all the world's living languages, Lithuanian is the one that most closely resembles PIE"). The chapter "Strictly ergative: Basque" is basically an explanation of ergativity (when the subjects of intransitive verbs are grammatically like the objects of transitive verbs), with just a little information about Basque on the side. And the chapter "Learning your A to Я: Russian" is an introduction to the Cyrillic alphabet, while "Pin the Name on the Language: Estonian" explains how to work out what language a text is in by looking at unusual characters and diacritics ("Estonian is the only language on our continent in which õ and ö can co-occur").

Dorren's tone is light-hearted, but he is not afraid to call a spade a spade. He includes a proposal for a merger of Bulgarian and Slovak as "Slogarian", to highlight some of the strange (for speakers of Germanic or Romance languages) features of Slavic languages. And after explaining the difficulties of Faroese — "when it comes to pronunciation the islanders have vastly different opinions, though they all agree that you can't be guided by the spelling" — he concludes "Learn Sorbian or Basque instead. They'll be of more use to you."

Each chapter ends with a look at some English words derived from the language, and some words from it that might usefully be adopted. So "The Low Countries have exported an amazing number of words to the English Language: well over 300, from 'beleaguer', 'cruise' and 'coleslaw' to 'plug', 'easel' and 'smuggler'", while Dorren suggests the Dutch word uitwaaien — to relax by visiting a windy place, often chilly and rainy — would be a useful addition to English.

Lingo is so scattered that I think only a few facts and ideas from it will stick in my memory, but it's easy to read and a lot of fun.

March 2018

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%T Lingo
%S A Language Spotter's Guide to Europe
%A Dorren, Gaston
%I Profile Books
%D 2014
%O paperback, index
%G ISBN-13 9781781254172
%P 304pp