Book Review: Lingo (A Language Spotter’s Guide to Europe) by Gaston Dorren

Words: without them we wouldn’t have books. Tracing the family tree and evolution of language has proven as complex as the evolution of biological life. But all European languages now have a missing link – one common ancestor language that created English, Spanish, Greek, Finnish, Armenian, Catalan, Cornish, Welsh and every other now spoken in Europe.

English is the language of billions but did you know that Monaco has a language spoken only in schools? Despite efforts of the tiny principality, nobody speaks it once they leave the education system.

Lingo is the story of Indo-European languages – what they have in common, their grammatical quirks and syntax, their sub-grounds and the languages spoken by no more than a few hundred people. This book looks at those languages, but also discusses their history and the politics behind why they are spoken in a certain place and the determination to preserve them as part of one’s identity. Language is so often tied to racial or cultural identity. Why else would dead languages be resurrected? Why else would it be considered important to maintain a language on the brink of extinction?

Here you will learn which version of Cornish people now speak and why it bears little resemblance to all previous versions of Cornish. You’ll learn how English differs from German and from which dialect it originally arose; you’ll also learn why English is such a poor choice as a global language. After reading this, you’ll known why and how the Catalan language is so fiercely protected (and why it’s also spoken in parts of France), dialects that have no more than about 50 speakers, and the odd influences on each other. This is a great book for dispelling myths about language “purity”, uniformity, and the battle for imperial domination. It’s as much routed in the colonialism and jingoism as it is in parochialism.

Dorren carefully examines each and every European language, dividing each into sections, attempting to group them by linguistic quirks, relative use, complexity and alphabet rather than direct relationships. What’s particularly interesting is how he examines “loan words” working both ways. You’ll come away understanding something about each of the languages of our continent. And also, you’ll learn about what went so wrong with Esperanto.

This book is easy on the eye. It’s quite long and an easy read, making good use of educational methods and even humour. But its greatest weakness is that it merely skims the surface of these languages. Just as you’re really starting to understand what made a certain language tick, it’s end of chapter and onto the next one. I wanted to know more about PIE (Proto Indo-European) for starters. There was no explanation for how we know what we know about it. As educational and as interesting as it is, this lack of detail is frustrating. I understand the writer wanted to cover as much detail as possible in this thorough volume, but perhaps it would have been best broken down into multiple volumes based loosely on the section headings.


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