(review of my book Taaltoerisme by Hendrik Spiering; from NRC Handelsblad, 24 November 2012)

The Romansh language has only 35,000 speakers. Yet even they have difficulty understanding one another, because nowhere has the medieval fragmentation of Latin remained in evidence more clearly than in the Swiss valleys. From one valley to the next, people speak differently, and these differences add up fast. ‘I’ is eu in Romansh, but also ja. Until recently, school primers were published in five varieties.

This is just one of many fascinating facts to be found in a lovely book, Linguistic tourism: Facts and stories on 53 European languages. Though it has the cheerful and light-hearted tone typical of many books about language, linguistics writer Gaston Dorren offers an excellent overview of Europe’s languages, focusing on one aspect in each chapter. It’s very educational, and very well done.

Of these languages it is Lithuanian, we learn, whose phonetics has remained most faithful to the original Indo-European. We say ‘four’, the Lithuanians say keturi and, six thousand years ago, the first speakers of what was to become the enormous Indo-European language family said *kwetwóres. Even their seven grammatical cases are similar to those that have been reconstructed for Indo-European.

The story of Albanian is a real tear-jerker. Not a soul outside Albania was interested in the history of this language except one Norbert Jokl, a German Jew who was killed at the hands of the Nazis. Later, the communist regime in Albania also turned a blind eye to the history of the language, unimpressed that the old documents were largely of a religious nature. Fortunately, another German scholar, Joachim Matzinger, has now taken an interest and is churning out one study after another. As Dorren puts it: the old widow has found a new young lover.

Dorren reports on the madness of Monégasque, a variety of Ligurian, itself an Italian dialect. Though it has only a hundred native speakers left (and even these speak French most of the time), it is a compulsory school subject all over the microstate of Monaco.

He also writes a loving chapter on Sorbian, a Slavic language spoken in parts of the former East Germany. Their language does not get the respect it deserves, the Sorbs feel, because unlike most other Slavic languages, it has articles. Dorren comes to their defence: in the other Slavic languages, ‘semi-articles’ like ‘one’ and ‘this’ are becoming increasingly frequent in colloquial speech. Before long, articles may be all the rage.

In his discussion of Romani, the language of the Roma – which has no less than eight cases – Dorren explains how cases can arise. As it happens, word suffixes begin life as post-noun prepositions (postpositions) before gradually merging with the preceding nouns.

What’s more, the book also has a handy checklist for identifying European languages on paper: A D with a bar across it? Serbo-Croat. An L with the same bar? Polish (or Sorbian). A language with no accents or other diacritics? English. The combination ij? Dutch (though it might be Latvian, too). A double z between vowels? Italian, of course. Ragazzi!

The best chapter is that on Dorren’s mother tongue, Limburgish. As a young child, he thought of Dutch not as a different language, but rather as “a different way of talking”, for he understood people either way. Not until his school days did he grasp that there was a real system to the Dutch language. And it took lessons in foreign languages for him to discover that there was a system to Limburgish, too. A system in which the declension of to go (ich gaon, doe geis) was echoed by to stand (ich staon, doe steis), to cite but one example. “I was amazed by what I found hiding out in my mind – all these things I knew without knowing I knew them!”

Translated with Alison Edwards

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