Babel

Last week I mentioned a book I was waiting to get my hands on. It was Babel: Around the World In Twenty Languages, by Gaston Dorren (Atlantic Monthly Press, 360 pp. hardback including index, $25).

I’ve since gotten my snoot into the book. It’s informative and well-written. I think many Saipan Tribune readers will find it of interest.

Contrary to my pre-purchase notions, the book is not a travelogue. It’s more of a scholarly take on the linguistics and related history, including, notably, the colonial and post-colonial histories that have shaped some of the world’s most widely-spoken languages.

These languages are, in descending order of number of speakers: English; Mandarin Chinese; Spanish; Urdu-Hindi, a term that Dorren offers as a hyphenated aggregation of these related languages; Arabic; Bengali; Portuguese; Russian, Malay; French; German; Swahili; Japanese; Punjabi; Persian; Javanese; Turkish; Tamil; Korean; and, finally, in 20th place, Vietnamese.

The book starts out with Vietnamese and works its way up the list. A chapter is dedicated to each language, though Japanese actually rates a bit more than one chapter.

The book does have a little bit of travel narrative in it. Dorren went to Vietnam not once, but twice, in order to study the language. This was my favorite chapter of the book. For one thing, it puts a human texture on language, which, after all, is what language is really all about. And, for another thing, it showcases what Dorren calls “the big fat singing elephant that bedevils most East Asian languages: tone.” Vietnamese has six such tones.

Dorren mentions a few pitfalls of using the wrong tone, such as inadvertently saying “scrotum” when you meant to say “go.”

Moving to another language, Portuguese, you might wonder how such a small country (population: 10 million) can be the seventh most widely-spoken language in the world. It tallies 275 million speakers.

This is a legacy of Portugal’s colonial past, which, in turn, is a legacy of its seagoing tradition dating back to the 1400s. Christopher Columbus and Ferdinand Magellan, for example, were Portuguese.

One Portuguese colony was Brazil, which now has a population of 210 million, and which consequently accounts for most Portuguese speakers. As for the Pacific, the Portuguese logged a lot of miles out here, too, with East Timor (close to Bali) and Macau (now under Chinese administration) having been Portuguese up until recent decades. The term “Formosa,” often used to refer to the island of Taiwan, is said to be a Portuguese appellation (“beautiful island”) dating from the 16th century.

Magellan, for his part, coined a term for the Mariana Islands, which we needn’t dwell on today.

Portugal wasn’t the only maritime power in the global colony business, of course, and the French, Spanish, Dutch, and British were part of the action, too. Colonial times lead to post-colonial times (well, usually), which carry with them issues of language. These things have to be settled somehow. Dorren offers a few cases in point, some peaceful, some not.

French is the 10th most widely-spoken language, with 250 million speakers, only 80 million of which are native. Part of this native tally includes parts of Canada and the Caribbean. The French colors also fly over a huge swath of the Pacific including French Polynesia and New Caledonia. Given its global clout, I had no idea that French was such a young language, at least in some respects: Dorren mentions that until 1539, Latin was the official written language of France. He also highlights some French efforts to keep their language standardized and pure.

Shifting gears to Arabic (the fifth-most widely spoken language with 375 million speakers), Dorren lists some English words that came from Arabic. The list is eight pages long! A few entries are: alchemy, algebra, algorithm, alkaline, and elixir.

Four of the 20 most widely-spoken languages have a presence in India; namely Hindi, Bengali, Punjabi, and Tamil, so there are a lot of related insights, including some examples of the written scripts, in Babel.

The main point I discern from Babel is that history and language are so interwoven that it’s hard to tell where one begins and the other ends. Dorren, who is a Dutch linguist, has a good touch for meshing historical narratives with slice-of-life language examples and with some slightly wonky linguistic observations. It’s an effective mix.

If you’ve wanted some food for thought as we prepare to start the weekend, well, now you’ve got some. For me, then, it’s time to go. Just to be clear, that’s a “g” and then an “o” for “go.” There are some things you just don’t want lost in translation.

Ed Stephens Jr. | Special to the Saipan Tribune
Visit Ed Stephens Jr. at EdStephensJr.com. His column runs every Friday.

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