Review: Lingo, Gaston Dorren

February 20, 2015 Reviews 0 ★★★½

Review: Lingo, Gaston DorrenLingo by Gaston Dorren
Published by Profile on November 2014
Genres: Non Fiction
Pages: 292
Source: Publisher
Amazon • Amazon UK • Book Depository

Why the Spanish speak so fast, the Dutch are gender-benders and it's hard to add up in Breton...

Welcome to Europe as you've never known it before, seen through the peculiarities of its languages and dialects. Combining linguistics and cultural history, Gaston Dorren takes us on an intriguing tour of the continent, from Proto-Indo-European (the common ancestor of most European languages) to the rise and rise of English, via the complexities of Welsh plurals and Czech pronunciation. Along the way we learn why Esperanto will never catch on, how the language of William the Conqueror lives on in the Channel Islands and why Finnish is the easiest European language.


English is a very tricky language to learn, coming from so many different ancient invaders and immigrants. I find myself in awe of those who master the language to a fluent level. But in fact, each of the rest of the languages of Europe have their own little quirks and idiosyncrasies.

Lingo acts as a sort of Lonely Planet of languages. Each chapter contains interesting facts about one or more of Europe’s hundreds of distinct languages, but as there are only a few facts about each, it really is like a guidebook. You couldn’t really read a guidebook start to end with any particular flow – each chapter is quite separate. It’s the same here. It ends up coming across in bits and pieces rather than the story of European language I thought it might be.

Still, the European languages are an odd bunch. How are you supposed to pronounce Polish names like Wojciech or Szczȩsny? Just how many words do the Sami have for snow? Why does the lego-brick approach to Finnish end up with words like happamuudensäätöaineetsuvaitsemattomuus? All these and more are answered in a quirky and witty way. The writing style is almost whimsical as it suggests words that English might borrrow from each language.

As an aside, when Mr Ang and I visited Russia a few years ago I made a point of learning to read Cyrillic before we went, but in the end it was only really useful for reading place names on signs because we found the language itself was almost completely incomprehensible. I mean, most languages it’s fairly easy to retain hello, thank you, goodbye, “two beers, please,” perhaps some rudimentary counting, but in Russian? No idea. Thankfully most hospitality-related staff speak English pretty well so we did alright. To this day the only words I remember are “Da” and “Nyet”, and that’s only thanks to film and TV. Anyway, you, too, can learn Cyrillic in the pages of Lingo.

But I still admire speakers of English as a second language:

If gh stands for p as in hiccough
If ough stands for o as in dough
If phth stands for t as in phthisis
If eigh stands for a as in neighbour
If tte stands for t as in gazette
If eau stands for o as in plateau
Then potato should be spelt ghoughphtheightteeau

Anni lives in Brisbane, Australia with her young family. She loves everything fantasy and science fiction and believes sleep is really very underrated.

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