Review
Babel: Around the World in Twenty Languages
Vivid snapshots of the world’s top 20 languages
Katie Botkin
Katie Botkin is a freelance writer and the managing editor of MultiLingual. She has a master’s degree in English with an emphasis on linguistics and has taught English on three continents.
T

he world contains around 6,000 living languages, but you only need 20 to reach roughly half of the world in their native language. Gaston Dorren writes about those 20 in his latest book, Babel.

Chapters are written in a variety of styles — The one on Persian is a Q&A; Vietnamese is a first-person essay. The chapter on Arabic offers eight pages of dictionary entries that correspond closely with English words, in an effort to bridge the foreignness of the language. Each chapter style pulls out the intricacies of the different tongues, creating vivid snapshots of what makes each language unique — sometimes culturally, sometimes linguistically, often historically. Even devoted linguists are bound to pick up tidbits they were previously unfamiliar with, and the book is an easy read, written to be digestible for the layperson.

Babel: Around the World in Twenty Languages, by Gaston Dorren. Atlantic Monthly Press, 2018. Hardcover, $25. 361 pages.
Babel: Around the World in Twenty Languages, by Gaston Dorren. Atlantic Monthly Press, 2018. Hardcover, $25. 361 pages.
Babel: Around the World in Twenty Languages, by Gaston Dorren. Atlantic Monthly Press, 2018. Hardcover, $25. 361 pages.
T

he world contains around 6,000 living languages, but you only need 20 to reach roughly half of the world in their native language. Gaston Dorren writes about those 20 in his latest book, Babel.

Chapters are written in a variety of styles — The one on Persian is a Q&A; Vietnamese is a first-person essay. The chapter on Arabic offers eight pages of dictionary entries that correspond closely with English words, in an effort to bridge the foreignness of the language. Each chapter style pulls out the intricacies of the different tongues, creating vivid snapshots of what makes each language unique — sometimes culturally, sometimes linguistically, often historically. Even devoted linguists are bound to pick up tidbits they were previously unfamiliar with, and the book is an easy read, written to be digestible for the layperson.

The chapter on Korean introduces the ideaphone, and makes a case for attaching certain general meanings to certain general sounds the vocal track produces. For example, in Korean, more forceful pronunciations of k and p — specifically, the aspirated k and p — are sometimes associated with more intensity. Kam-gam means “in the dark,” and the aspirated k’am-k’am means “in the spooky, desolate dark.” Ping-bing means “round and round,” and the aspirated p’ing-p’ing means “round and round, faster.” Dorren uses examples in the language being discussed to talk broadly about linguistic concepts, and how they might even apply to other languages — often, examples in English.

The chapter on Bengali deals with the history of writing, and how various languages adapted the ancient Phoenician writing system into alphabets (such as Greek and later Roman), abjads where vowels are relatively unimportant (such as Aramaic and later Arabic) and abugidas (such as Brahmic scripts, including Bengali). “By adopting an existing writing system, a region would signal its linguistic (or sometimes religious) affiliation,” Dorren writes.

Swahili takes on language learning, through the eyes of a man from Cameroon named Jonas who speaks no less than eight languages, so far. This is cultural rather than genetic, says Dorren: “his choosing to learn some languages that were merely useful rather than indispensible has more to do with the culture of his ethnic group, where multilingualism is considered a good thing in itself.” The attitude toward speaking language is a pragmatic one: less about preserving every word in its pristine natural environment, and more about being understood. As a result, Swahili has adapted to become less complex grammatically than many of its Bantu neighbors.

Chapters are arranged from smallest to largest numbers of speakers, starting with Vietnamese (85 million speakers) and ending with a chapter on English (1.5 billion speakers). Dorren counts language distribution by numbers of speakers total, not just native speakers, so English rings in as the “most-spoken” language in the world, even though Mandarin (the second to last chapter) has the most native speakers at 900 million.

World map of The 20 Babel languages: official status.

Modern translation comes in as a subject at the very end, with the discussion of English as the current lingua franca. The debate may be familiar to those of us in the translation industry: the chapter involves some spirited speculation between two people about whether machine interpretation will take over as the world’s lingua franca. Dorren readily acknowledges the difficulties: machine translation is not itself up to snuff, especially for smaller languages, and adding in voice recognition technology makes it all the more difficult. His conclusion is that if this happens, it will not be immediate, and global elites will probably stick with English.

My favorite chapter is the one covering Japanese, or more specifically, dialects based on gender, affectionately dubbed “genderlects.” Men’s genderlect is optional, Dorren says. Although this is less true than it used to be, “Women’s language, on the other hand, is not so optional, and parents and teachers will do their best to make girls toe the linguistic line. But this implies that the ‘ungendered’ Japanese is in fact no such thing: part of it is the reserve of men, who, moreover, have a special register at their disposal that is particularly masculine.”

The history of “women’s language” is complex and somewhat debated, but according to Dorren, it has its roots in the eighth-century idea (beginning in the Heian period) that women should not appear overly learned or intelligent. Over the next centuries, this was codified in accordance with Confucian ideology “which held that it behoved women to obey men and that a woman, by speaking, might easily destroy the proper order of the family and society as a whole.” This took a turn when courtly women devised their own dialect, and half a millennium later, women’s language is still alive in Japan, although Dorren says it is on the decline, primarily used in novels and television as a device to signal which gender the speaker is.

After reading this, I wanted to know if companies such as Apple are localizing female digital assistants such as Siri to speak “women’s language” in Japanese. A quick Google search did not reveal the answer, so I asked a Japanese friend. After checking out Siri, Alexa and Google Assistant, we concluded that big companies use neutral language when they localize their female digital assistants. However, Japan’s own Gatebox Holographic Wife, a G-rated digital assistant designed for Japan’s celebate males, uses “women’s language” to communicate, although my friend told me that this was due to her being a “character” instead of a representation of a mainstream woman.

There is plenty in the book to intrigue localizers, digital assistants aside. Language enthusiasts everywhere will also enjoy Dorren’s engaging style and in-depth approach.