Pop culture

“Don’t learn these languages”: a criticism of Lingo by Gaston Dorren

Lingo is a popular science book about “European languages” by Gaston Dorren. He includes mainly Indo-European but also Celtic, Uralic and Sámi languages. I learned some cool fun facts from the book, since every chapter ends with loanwords English has taken in from that language and an ‘untranslatable word’ from the language. For instance, did you know that the word ‘robot’ comes from Czech and technically means ‘slave’? Don’t tell our artificially intelligent friends that.

lingo-leus

(https://languagewriter.com/lingo/)

I am also so delighted that a book about language has grown popular. Its translated version was on the shelves of all book stores in Norway when it was released. It may encourage people to start or continue learning a foreign language, and it may spark an interest in linguistics that people didn’t know they had. Its existence, and success, is a cause for celebration.

This is why I’m disapppointed that there is little of substance in the book. Some chapters are only 2-3 pages long and rarely go past the first punchline. Sometimes a chapter sounds like a dramatized version of the first paragraph of a Wikipedia article. I appreciate the attempt to include as many languages as possible, and not the standard combination of English, French, Italian, German, etc., but writing about more than 60 languages in roughly 290 pages is a bit unrealistic. Actually, it leaves an average of five pages per language.

When there is so little room for each language, the content within the chapters needs to be succinct and carry some message for the reader to bring with them. Each chapter should at least inspire the reader to open their browser and learn more. The book does not do this. With such short chapters, there is no room for nuance or more than one aspect of the language. Dorren picks one topic about the language and neglects the rest, sometimes only leaving the reader with some problematic implications. I will get into the worst ones here.

 

“Don’t even bother learning Faroese.”

The chapter on Faroese is three pages long and can be summarized by: no one speaks Faroese, it has Case and spelling and pronunciation are often different, and therefore it will be too hard to learn. Faroese is a cool language, from my perspective, because it’s kind of like Icelandic but also has influences from Danish due to contact. How does it differ from Icelandic, and why?

Dorren does not delve into this. He calls Faroese ‘the Romans north of Hadrian’s wall’ because it has Case, which is a bit strange: what about Icelandic? What about all the other European languages that have Case?

I think the most problematic aspect is the fact that he concludes that Faroese is useless to learn: “Even if you should happen to find yourself on the islands, you could chat to the locals in the somewhat more useful Danish language.” (p. 259). Essentially this implies that any language that doesn’t have more than some tens of thousands of speakers is a fruitless endeavor. Why would someone claiming to encourage language-learning actively argue against the learning of Faroese? It makes no sense.

Another reason to not learn Faroese, according to Dorren, is because it’s too “difficult to learn”. His main reasons for this lie in the fact that Faroese has Case and that its spelling is different from the way the language is pronounced. This is not an argument. My native languages don’t even have person agreement, but that didn’t stop me from learning English. It’s such an absurd statement to make, and especially when the purpose of the book is to embrace languages.

 

“Esperanto is not similar enough to Germanic and Romance.”

This one is so annoying to me. What I expected before reading the chapter on Esperanto was the whole criticism of it being so European that it technically can’t be called a world language, since it is so much easier for speakers of Indo-European to learn than for others. This is a valid criticism. Dorren, however, takes a different turn, claiming that Esperanto is a failure because it’s too similar to Slavic, making it unintuitive for speakers of Germanic and Romance languages. In four pages he manages to complain a lot: that Esperanto has Case; that its lack of gender is illogical because of phrases like la viro ‘the man’ will feel wrong to Romance speakers, and that knabino, meaning ‘girl’, “looks masculine”; and that the /x/ sound, like in the German ich or Norwegian kjær, is foreign to Anglophones.

Criticizing Esperanto for not being a flat, boring, inflectionless language, Dorren shows a lack of understanding of what a bias this is toward Germanic and Romance. What he considers an easy grammar is not necessarily what Slavic speakers will find easy. Surely, saying la viro is better than having Gender in the language, a feature which carries little to no semantic content?

Arguing that Esperanto was unsuccessful because it was unintuitive for some Europeans is also untrue. I would instead assume that its lack of a speech community was the issue, in addition to the rise of English in the same period. Saying that Esperanto’s demise was because it was badly designed is a bit misleading.

 

Essentially, my problem lies in Dorren’s implicit argument that if there are any obstacles in learning a foreign language, you shouldn’t. Case is not a reason to put down your Russian textbook. No feature in a language is unnecessary or less valuable than another. Even if a language is spoken by only one person, it is not useless. Learn it. It will be worth it.

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