In keeping with a book about language, communication and the art of being understood, let’s not mince words and instead come straight to the point: “Lingo: Around Europe in Sixty Languages” is a wonderful read. Its Dutch author, Gaston Dorren, is a linguist, journalist and polyglot who speaks six languages and reads nine more. His lively and insightful book takes the reader on a linguistic tour of Europe. In 60 witty, bite-sized chapters, Dorren makes sense of the babel of voices, exploring the origins of the continent’s languages and dialects and highlighting surprise commonalities, stark differences and quirky singularities.
Europe’s two main language families are Indo-European and Finno-Ugric. In his chapter on the latter, Dorren gives a crash course in Finnish and Hungarian grammar and contrasts cognates (“born-together” words) to show how both languages are related and yet “separated siblings.”
He maintains the family analogy when talking us through the more unruly Indo-European saga, which takes in conservative patriarchs (Lithuanian), children who have “an unhealthy mother fixation” (French) and abandoned orphans (Romanian and other Balkan languages).
Dorren helps us distinguish between Slovene and Slovakian and the language of Sorbs and Serbs. One chapter compares the Russian and Greek Cyrillic alphabets, while another charts the evolution of certain words. Along with familiar tongues, Dorren regales us with several minority languages that range from little-known — Romansch (a splinter of “the broken pitcher once called Latin”), Frisian, Ossetian — to downright obscure, specifically Gagauz, Shelta and Anglo-Romani.
“Lingo” has necessary moments of seriousness. Dorren changes tone when explaining how Jewish vernaculars have disappeared as a result of emigration, assimilation and genocide, and in a chapter aptly titled “Intensive Care” when examining languages on the brink of extinction and the rare few that have returned from the grave.
However, the book is at its best when Dorren keeps matters light. Practically every page comes studded with at least one fascinating fact. Who knew (outside of Scandinavia) that “Norwegian” is neither a written nor a spoken language, or that 200 years ago Danish was spoken on four continents? One inspired touch is Dorren’s breakdown of the 20 words the Sami people (better known as Laplanders) have for snow. Equally brilliant is his decision to end each chapter with a key word from the language under discussion that has no English equivalent — “but perhaps should.” Gems include the Dutch uitwaaien (“to relax by visiting a windy place”), the Breton startijenn (“a kick of energy, such as you get from a shot of coffee”) and the indispensable Portuguese pesamenteiro (“a funeral-crasher”).
Dorren’s closing chapter is on English, a language which, he argues, is “much like Chinese.” It is an outlandish assertion, but he manages to convince in an illuminating and entertaining way. Much like he does throughout the whole of his unique, page-turning book.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.