Book Review

The World's Major Languages

B. Comrie, ed.
Oxford Univ. Press 1990, 1025 pages


This book covers fifty of what the author considers to be the most influential languages, written by experts in the field. Each chapter covers a separate language, and each language family also receives a short introductory chapter. The book focuses principally on Indo-European languages, with 40% of the book focusing on the languages of Europe alone, and gives only minor treatment to Austronesian, Uralic, Afroasiatic, Sino-Tibetan, Niger-Kordofanian, and Tai languages. Native American languages, despite being one of the most complex and varied language families in the world, are not mentioned at all, while Turkic is treated as a separate family, rather than part of the more controversial Altaic. According to the author, the selection of languages to include was made on the basis of relative global importance; however, this does not really explain the inclusion of extinct languages such as Latin, and the selection of topics seems also to have been influenced to some extent by a greater familiarity and interest of the authors in languages of the Germanic, Latin, and Slavonic groups.

Even so, 50 is a large number of languages, and the treatment is necessarily more superficial than could be obtained from a more specialized book. However, the writing in most of the chapters is exceptionally concise, focused, balanced, and well-organized, and gives a good overview of each language, leaving the reader actually more interested in each language after reading the chapter than before reading it - a remarkable achievement considering the book's focus on the traditionally dry topics of phonology and grammar. By comparison, in The Languages of China by S.R. Ramsey, the pace is much more leisurely. In Ramsey, the Chinese dialects (Wu, Yue, Min, etc) each receive several pages, whereas in Comrie only the major dialects are mentioned and these only receive a brief paragraph, hardly enough to present a clear picture of the differences.

A new edition of a much more comprehensive book, A Compendium of the World's Languages by Campbell (1574 pages, Routledge Press), which covers a much greater range of languages, is due to be published sometime this year (2000). Unfortunately, this book is quite expensive (expected price is US$410).

Comrie's book, which is only 1/10 as expensive as Campbell, concentrates on the phonology, morphology, and syntax of the languages and only occasionally delves into the genetic interrelations among members of language families. For example, here is a sample paragraph from the chapter on Tibeto-Burman:

Current comparative work on Tibeto-Burman morphological structure presents a picture quite different from what has historically been assumed about Tibeto-Burman languages. Proto-Tibeto-Burman is now reconstructed with a split-ergative case marking and verb agreement system of the sort exemplified by the following Gyarong examples, in which the third person but not first and second person transitive subjects are case marked (in the modern languages which retain this system the ergative marker is often identical to the instrumental and/or ablative postposition), while the verb shows pronominal concord with any first or second person argument, regardless of its grammatical role: [examples omitted]

There is also relatively little discussion of word evolution or orthography; the chapter on Japanese uses an occasional Kanji to make a point, and the Japanese kana, as well as Hangul, Cyrillic, Arabic, and Devanagari symbols are listed in tables, but the primary focus of most chapters is on the phonology and syntax of languages, generally using IPA instead of the native orthography for this purpose. Although consistent and precise, IPA notation is non-intuitive to read at first. For instance the Russian for 'I read', pronounced something like 'ya chitaya' is written in IPA as 'ja citaju'. The biggest exception to the prevalence of IPA in the book is the chapter on Chinese which uses pinyin (which is even more non-intuitive than IPA) throughout, and only at the end gives a table showing the pinyin-IPA equivalents. This chapter is so short that it completely omits any discussion of the zhuyinfuhao characters commonly used in many areas to represent Chinese phonemes.

An excellent introduction to the fascinating topic of comparative linguistic orthography can be found in The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Writing Systems by Florian Coulmas (603 pages, 1996). This book's adherence to the 'encyclopedia' format gives it a tendency to jump seemingly randomly from one topic to another (although of course, it is not really random, merely alphabetical). This book, in contrast to Comrie, is not Indo-European-centric, giving, for example, several examples of native American writing, such as Mayan syllabograms and the Cree syllabary, which was invented in 1840 by missionary James Evans for the Cree Indians in Canada. For most writing systems, along with tables listing the characters, example sentences or passages are given in the native script, along with a transliteration and translation. Many of these, however, are very short. For example, only one Cree sentence is given, which is translated as: "Long legged boots in beaver with socks.", presumably a typical sentence reflecting native cultural concerns.

The Blackwell Encyclopedia also gives a (fuzzy) example of the mysterious Xixia writing system, which was used for writing Tangut, a language that became extinct shortly after the destruction of the Xixia empire in 1226 by Genghis Khan. The Xixia invented an elaborate set of strange pictograms resembling Chinese, but which are now largely indecipherable.

Another book (which I haven't actually read yet), The World's Writing Systems by Daniels and Bright (922 pages, 1996), covers a similar range of topics as the Blackwell Encyclopedia, and seems to have better samples of the various scripts. Some of the historical details about the languages in D&B conflict with those in the Blackwell Encyclopedia. It is not clear to me which book is correct.

Another good resource is The Unicode Standard version 3, which is a reference manual on computer typesetting, and although it does not deal with linguistic issues, it gives complete samples of a variety of orthographies, unfortunately without any discussion of their interpretation or linguistic context. If you need a complete listing of Dingbats font, Braille dots, or Unicode equivalents of Japanese JIS encodings to add to your Web page, this is the book. It also comes with a CD-ROM which includes the entire database as well as technical reports. Sadly, the Xixia script mentioned above appears to be absent from the Unicode standard, an oversight which will undoubtedly be corrected in version 4.0.

Here is a sample paragraph from The Unicode Standard :

Special Characters. U+0BD7 TAMIL AU LENGTH MARK is provided as an encoding for the right side of the surroundrant (or two-part) vowel U+0BCC TAMIL VOWEL SIGN AU.

Not exactly bedtime reading. But this book is indispensible for writing web pages that include non-English characters.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are the Cambridge Linguistics Series books such as The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language by D. Crystal, which is printed on thick paper and filled with numerous color photographs, of marginal relevance to the subject, depicting smiling people from various ethnic groups. The level of writing, which tends to highlight politically-correct themes such as the role of feminism and ethnic minorities in language (the presumed existence of "ebonics", a language of putative African inheritance, being a typical example), appears to be aimed at high-school students and other easily-offended readers with relatively short attention spans and/or modest levels of interest in the subject matter, who need a topic for school reports. However, the books are quite cheap and would in fact be a good resource for teenagers (providing of course you can figure out some way to pry them away from their Internet browsers which they traditionally use for this purpose. See Dave Barry in Cyberspace for a humorous example of this).