Lingo: Around Europe in 60 Languages

July 20, 2020 Book Reviews 4 ★★★★

Lingo: Around Europe in 60 LanguagesLingo by Gaston Dorren
Published by Audible Studios on Dec. 1, 2015 (Audible); Nov. 1, 2014 (hardcover)
Genres: Nonfiction
Format: Audiobook
Source: my personal collection
Purchase: Amazon | Book Depository | Bookshop | Barnes & Noble
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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.

Surprising, witty and full of extraordinary facts, this book will change the way you think about the languages around you. Polyglot Gaston Dorren might even persuade you that English is like Chinese.

In Lingo, linguist and polyglot Gaston Dorren does more-or-less what the subtitle implies: he takes you on a whirlwind tour of Europe’s languages. From English to Russian to languages I had never even heard of (who knew that tiny Monaco has its own language, Monagasque?), Dorren introduces you to the history, grammar, strengths, and quirks of 60 languages in nearly as many chapters.

That’s not to say you get anything like a thorough grounding in these languages, or even in the history of European languages generally. Sure, Dorren goes briefly into Proto-Indo-European (PIE), but “briefly” describes most of the chapters in this book. Personally, I find languages fascinating and linguistics equally so (although I’m no expert), so I enjoyed listening to Lingo. But I frequently wished Dorren would slow down and go into more depth about some of the languages he discusses, and their relationships to one another. No language gets the full treatment. Rather, he uses each language to demonstrate some point he wants to make, whether it’s the strong similarities between Czech and Slovak and some other Slavic languages, or the limitations of and reasons for using a particular alphabet (mainly Latin and Cyrillic), or the revival of a once-dead language (Cornish being the prime example.) He makes a decent argument for English being as hard to learn as Mandarin (Chinese) is, and a weaker argument for Finnish as the easiest European language to learn. I picked up a lot of interesting tidbits — Basque has an interesting grammatical structure, nearly impossible for nonnative speakers to learn, and I finally have an inkling of why so many letters and letter combinations in Irish and Scots Gaelic are essentially silent. But all in all, I wished that a few chapters had been left out, and that many other languages had been explored more fully.

I’m of two minds about the audiobook narration. On the one hand, the narrator (George Backman) was reasonably adept at producing some sounds not found in English, such as some French and German vowels (the German ü, for instance.) And I thought he interpreted the author’s conversational style very well. However, his pronunciation of a few Welsh words was off, and I questioned his pronunciation of words in several other languages as well. That didn’t give me a lot of confidence in his pronunciation of languages I had not heard spoken before. On the one hand, he could be saying it perfectly… but how would I know if he were wrong?

In the long run, I found myself wishing for A) a print copy, so I could see the words I was hearing, and B) a pronunciation guide in IPA (the International Phonetic Alphabet used by linguists, singers, actors, and constructed language creators.)

If you are a beginner to languages other than English, and want to be entertained as you learn a little, or even tantalized into finding out more, Lingo is a good place to start. If you have already studied languages and linguistics, you may find it entertaining, but a bit shallow. And if you prefer a deep dive into linguistics, I highly recommend the Great Courses lectures by John McWhorter, beginning with The Story of Human Language.


Reading this book contributed to these challenges:

  • Audiobook Challenge 2020
  • Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2020
  • The Backlist Reader Challenge 2020

4 Responses to “Lingo: Around Europe in 60 Languages

    • Lark_Bookwyrm

      I gather McWhorter is one of the leading experts on linguistics. And he’s a great teacher. I need to relisten to the lectures; I don’t tend to retain as much when I can’t see the material, but I do learn and retain some things each time I listen to them.

  1. Lory @ Emerald City Book Review

    Entertaining but a bit shallow is a good summary. I enjoyed it a lot but was aware there is much more to learn. And I found it telling that he cited Wikipedia as a major reference! Interested in the McWhorter lectures, thanks for the tip.