If you spoke 20 languages, you could speak to half of the world’s population in their mother tongue and at least communicate with an additional 25%. In this book, the linguist Gaston Dorren dedicates one chapter to each of these 20 languages, and explores some of their characteristics and oddities. The book starts with the language with the fewest speakers, which is Vietnamese, and progresses to the one with the most, English.
Dorren always provides some general information on each language first, only to then focus on one or two specific features, like Javanese’s extremely complicated formal language, Japanese’s gendered language and complex writing system, or Korean’s ideophones and sound symbolism. In the chapter on Swahili he explores the multilingualism of Africans, and in the one on German the language’s reputation of being weird and hard to learn. With some languages, like Hindi-Urdu, Tamil, or Turkish, he looks at their history, while in the part on Vietnamese he details his own struggles in trying to learn the language. Most of it was fascinating, especially the chapters on languages that I had absolutely no knowledge about. However, even the chapter on English was interesting to me, because he focuses on a few ways that it could evolve in the future, and the possibility of it becoming the end of Babel.
I also liked the fact that Dorren didn’t look at most languages truly separately, but instead compares them or points out which are related or have heavily influenced each other, and which have similar characteristics. This allows for a broader picture of languages and linguistics in general. On the downside, this means that it is all over the place when it comes to the individual languages, depending on whether he focuses on history, etymology, phonetics, grammar, or sociocultural aspects. In this respect, it is more of an introduction to linguistics as a whole, and to these 20 languages in particular. Nonetheless, I thought that it is an excellent, if a little overambitious book that more often than not manages to be educational and entertaining at the same time.