“Those reviewers on Amazon are ____________ [fill in the blank]”

Blogger and teacher Larry Davidson from Weston, MA had a close look at the reviews of Babel at amazon.com. And like myself, he didn’t like what he saw. But he could do, and did, what I could never do: review the reviewers (without mincing his words).

I’ll reproduce his first few paragraphs here before sending you off to the man himself – who I’ve never met or spoken to in my life, I should add. But is he a friend? You bet.

So here’s Larry Davidson’s blogpost:

As Tom Lehrer famously said, “the reason most reviews on Amazon are so atrocious is that they were written by the people.”

Actually, that’s not quite what he said. He actually said “the reason most folk songs are so atrocious is that they were written by the people.” But it’s exactly the same idea; there’s no editorial eye on members of the general public who write reviews on Amazon, Google, and Yelp. So it’s not just Amazon, but I’ll use that as my example.

Yesterday I reviewed Babel by Gaston Dorren. My review was positive — enthusiastic, in fact. Now of course opinions differ, and de gustibus non est disputandum, so it doesn’t bother me if you dislike a book I like, or if you like a book I dislike. You can even think Dan Brown is a good writer for all I care. But some things about non-professional reviews do bother me. Let’s use the Amazon reviews of Babel as an instructive example. Half of the reviewers gave 4 or 5 stars, so obviously those people are discerning and thoughtful.😉 What we want to do is look at the reviewers who gave 1–3 stars. Maybe they were discerning and thoughtful too, and all we have is a difference of opinion.

In some cases that was indeed what was going on. Continue reading .

A prize for Babel!

On Saturday 5 October, I was honoured to win the Onze Taal/ANV Language Book Prize 2019. The prize-giving ceremony took place during the biennial conference of Onze Taal, an NGO dedicated to the Dutch language. The award is endowed with 3,000 euros and comes with a certificate and a caricature by well-known cartoon artist Tom Janssen.

The same video with subtitles in Dutch can be seen here.

Ten reasons to study Vietnamese (and 5 to regret it)

Last year, my friend Huyền and I gave a presentation at the Polyglot Conference in Ljubljana titled ’10 Reasons to Study Vietnamese (And 5 to Regret it)’. Since she couldn’t come to Europe at the time, her contribution was pre-recorded.

The whole talk, including the Q&A, has now been published. The response of the audience can’t be heard, making the thing a bit eerie, like a movie without its soundtrack. Anyway, here it is:

A professor at boiling point

Sri_Lanka_-_Sri_Lankan_Tamils_2012My invitation to the readers of Babel and Lingua to let me know what they think has produced a steady stream of emails, most of them interesting and many heart-warming. Occasionally, however, the effect is chilling, and here’s an example.

The Babel chapter about Tamil is mostly about India, but it also touches on Sri Lanka, which has a sizeable Tamil-speaking minority. Since independence in 1948, relations between the two major ethnic and linguistic groups, the Sinhalese and the Tamils, have been tense at best and frequently violent. While tension and violence can never be exclusively blamed on one side, Sinhalese nationalism and suppression of Tamil rights did much to ignite the powder keg into civil war – a powder keg created by the British colonial administration, I should add. Continue reading

John McWhorter: ‘When I learn something I want to share it’

John answering a question2

During the interview

Why is it important for a linguist to engage with a general audience? If languages go extinct, why is that a loss people should care about?

These are two of the questions that I asked Professor John McWhorter on Skype. We had this conversation right after John interviewed me for his Lexicon Valley podcast, which you can find here.

Living Yiddish: an insider’s observations

I recently had a fascinating correspondence with a reader who grew up in a Yiddish-speaking environment. She has allowed me to publish her emails, but prefers to remain anonymous. As per her request, I have given the text a – very light – edit.

DerYidMuch as I enjoyed your book Lingo, I was surprised to read your description of Yiddish today. In your book you describe Yiddish speakers as mostly older survivors while the next generation speak it at best as a second language. It is not surprising therefore that you are pessimistic as to its future.

But this situation could not be further from the truth. Yiddish in places like Brooklyn, London, Montreal, Antwerp and Israel is not just spoken, but it is often as a primary mother tongue. In villages like Kiryat Joel and New Square in upstate New York Yiddish is the official language of everything from commerce, education, press etc. Continue reading

Podcast: Africa’s relaxed multilingualism

ABChapter 12 of Babel, which is about Swahili, discusses how Africans think nothing of mastering several languages. Many people speak at least three: their mother tongue, their region’s or country’s lingua franca and the official language of administration and education, usually French, English, Portuguese or Arabic. The chapter has been particularly well received by many readers.

The podcast America the Bilingual has dedicated its latest episode to the subject. It greatly enriches my own story by interviewing several people from East and West Africa about the how, what and why of their multilingualism. The show is 12 minutes long, and I highly recommend it. Click on the round red-and-white play button below and enjoy!

Around the world in 16 publishers (so far)

New translation contracts keep coming in! This week, early June 2019, I learnt about the sixteenth separate edition, in the thirteenth language: Romanian. Niculescu of Bucharest have acquired the rights.

Wow. Thanks to Profile Books and Andrew Nurnberg Associates, who make such a great job of selling the translation rights, I can now feel like a one-man multinational. Here’s an updated map of the Babel campaign:

wereldkaart - met BABEL - groot Europa

A cosmonought from Awestria

You know that game where you keep translating a sentence back and forth between two languages, until the original statement is only a vage memory? It also works with transcription between alphabets. I just came across a real-life example.

In 1991, Franz Viehböck was Austria’s first Raumfahrer (astronaut or, in this case, cosmonaut). A correct name tag was stuck on his clothing, along with a Cyrillic version: Фибёк. That’s not a bad approximation of the original pronunciation,
/ˈfiːbœk/, and probably based on official rules for German-to-Russian transcription.


Name tag, on display at the House of Austrian History in Vienna.

After his flight, Viehböck got an official certificate, or rather two: one in Russian, one in English. But while the former once again spells his name as фибёк, the latter displays an entirely new version of his name: Feeberk. Continue reading