Dictionary of Languages: The Definitive Reference to More than 400 Languages (Hardcover)
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Andrew Dalby. Dictionary of Languages : The Definitive Reference to More Than 400 Languages. NY: Columbia University Press, 1998. Illustrated with maps and tables. Hardbound, 734 pages.
105463 ISBN-13: 9780231115681 ISBN-10: 0231115687
| A Review by RLB Hartmann
Andrew Dalby's subtitle accurately states the purpose and scope of his scholarly yet highly readable work. It is a colorful and impressive book, both inside and out. The Preface and Introduction give the reader a clear idea not only of the content, but of the writer's style and enthusiasm for his study of language and languages.
In the Preface, Dalby says that his Dictionary is "Intended for non-specialists," then explains that while most linguists use the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) to show pronunciation, the IPA is specialized and has to be learned; hence, he uses the more familiar English symbols for sounds -- with some additions which do not appear in English words. These additions come primarily from Russian, French, and Hebrew. Dalby is meticulous in delineating these sounds, with easily-grasped examples. He also clarifies his use of the statistics which appear for each language, and uses a map of Middle Earth to exemplify the way other maps show the movement and overlapping of languages in various regions.
Dalby's Introduction lays out the range of his work; that is, how he chose the languages he included. In 1997, he points out, more than five thousand languages were spoken, some by only a few speakers. He outlines just what language is, how children learn it, and how languages can either grow apart or converge. He is careful to define terms unfamiliar to a casually-curious reader, and to give examples of points that might appear to be obscure, and comparisons that aid in understanding concepts. Some of his most interesting bits are those appearing in boxes throughout the book, including the Introduction, where one finds historical anecdotes and explanatory essays in a nutshell.
While the book itself is arranged alphabetically, from Abkhaz and Abaza ( 300,000 speakers ) to Zulu ( 8,800,000 speakers ), individual entries vary as to the kinds of information that appear. For instance, while all entries have a core of history and countries which use that language, not all have maps, nor do they all have boxes containing added tidbits. Alphabets, numerals, and -- where applicable -- symbols are standard, while many of the entries include poetry excerpts, translations from ancient texts, and lines suggestive of The Farmer's Almanac, such as "The rice harvest" (p. 477, from a Miao agricultural calendar collected by F.M. Savina).
There is a 4-page Glossary which is helpful, and a 25-page Index that appears to be as meticulous as the text itself. The last page, Dalby's Acknowledgements, not only gives credit to those who aided in the research, but also sets forth his themes: "the multiple social uses of language and oral literature, and the complex ways in which languages have interacted with one another."
The Columbia University edition is a hefty tome with a durable and attractive cover, and layout and internal typefaces that are both pleasant and meaningful. The single difficulty one might encounter is reading the small print against the red back cover, where half a dozen glowing endorsements appear. In 1998, when this edition was published, Andrew Dalby was "Honorary Librarian at the Institute of Linguistics and is a regular contributor to their journal, The Linguist." Among other books, Dalby also wrote Empire of Pleasures: Luxury and Indulgence in the Roman World and Language in Danger (Columbia).
RLB Hartmann is the Associate Editor of AB Bookman's Weekly