E X C L U S I V E I N T E R V I E W
Gaston Dorren, a Netherlands-based writer and linguist, has published three Dutch books on language. One of these was published in English as Lingo: Around Europe in Sixty Languages, and translated into several other languages. He has contributed to popular linguistics magazines in the Netherlands, Belgium, Britain, Norway and Switzerland. He recently published "Talking Gibberish" on aeon.co. Gaston speaks English, German, Spanish and poor French and reads several more languages. He blogs at languagewriter.com.
Lyda: When did you become interested in languages as an object of study?
Gaston: I think it all began when I was learned English, French, German and Latin at school. Only then did I realize that Limburgish, the vernacular we spoke in our region, the southern Dutch province of Limburg, was a language in its own right, not just some sort of informal Dutch. It was an epiphany to me that Limburgish, like English and French and the rest, had grammar rules, vocab and sounds substantially different from Dutch. I'd never stopped to think about that before. It was learning other languages that opened my eyes. Or my ears, rather.
Lyda: Did your upbringing play a role in developing your language interests?
Gaston: I'm sure it did. My mother is quite finicky about using le mot juste, both in Dutch and in Limburgish. My father was a French teacher, (which explains the choice of my name Gaston), my first girlfriend was German and most of the TV shows I watched, like The 6 Million Dollar Man and M*A*S*H, were in English, with Dutch subtitles.
Lyda: Did you become aware of the language of the elite by growing up in the upper-class?
Gaston: Certainly not; I'm from the "middlest" middle-class background imaginable. The only elitist family thing that I can remember dates to well before I was born: When my father went to a teachers training college at the age of 17 to become a teacher, my grandfather would write him letters in French. In my granddad's childhood, around 1900, French was still the elite language in our part of Limburg, and as an adult he wasn't above a bit of snobbery.
Lyda: You are the author of 'Lingo: Around Europe in Sixty Languages', published in the US two years ago. It's a linguistic travelogue that takes the reader through Europe, examining sixty languages. How did you plan the book? Describe for our readers the experience of writing such a book.
Gaston: It actually grew very organically, out of some purely recreational writing. Feeling that these first few pieces were quite promising, I wondered what their common denominator might be, and I settled on this 'languages of Europe' theme, which proved to be highly inspiring. The book was first published in Dutch and got excellent reviews. I then decided to be reckless and have it translated into English at my own risk and expense. That has worked out wonderfully, because thanks to my agent Caroline Dawnay and the very perceptive publisher Mark Ellingham at Profile Books, it became something of a bestseller in Britain. Other editions, including the American one, have also done very satisfactorily. There are seven different language editions now. The main gaps are, much to my distress, Italian and French. I would really love to see Lingo published in those two languages. There is a wonderful Spanish edition, so Lingo in a Romance language is definitely possible!
Lyda: Could you explain to our readers the influence of powerful personalities on the development of languages. In your book, you describe how often one particular person with a strong dedication saved a language from extinction, or promoted a certain variety of a language. Did you notice the politics behind the choices for promoting one language or language variety over another one?
Gaston: Yeah, it's true that, with hindsight, many languages owe a lot to one or two persons. Perhaps they fought for its recognition or their books had a strong impact on the standard language. Martin Luther has been important for German, Dante for Italian. These are household names, but further to the East, there are all these 'fathers of the mother tongues' that most Western Europeans and Americans haven't heard about. Some of those may indeed have saved their language from extinction or at least marginalization. For instance, in Lingo I tell the story of the Slovak linguist and nationalist Ľudovít Štúr. Despite his efforts, Slovak didn't attain an official status until the breakup of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, and it was only after Slovakia broke away from Czechoslovakia that the language really came into its own. These things work both ways: just like Slovak was in need of a country in order to flower, so Slovakia was in need of a language to claim nationhood. I'm simplifying things here, but nationalism and 'languagehood' are often considered to go together, especially in Europe. I'm not so sure that's a good thing. Nation and language make for a heady mix, even a toxic mix. Catalonia is the latest example of the tensions this can create, and similar conflicts have occurred all over Europe.
Lyda: What project are you working on now?
Gaston: I'm working on a book which is due out in late 2018, about the most widely-spoken languages in the world, from English, Mandarin and Spanish to somewhat lesser-known languages such as Tamil, Swahili and Vietnamese. Even though English is today's world language, only one in eight or so people in the world can speak it with any degree of fluency. This book will be about most of the other seven. As in Lingo, every chapter will have its own angle. For the one about Vietnamese, for instance, I'm actually trying to learn the language, and I'm going to spend a few weeks there soon. The chapter on French will be about the strong emphasis on la Norme and about Paris's dislike for minority languages. Article 2 of the Constitution says that "La langue de la République est le français", a legal fiction used to repress minorities' cultural rights. A self-confident nation that likes its citizens free and diverse would never make such an authoritarian claim. Oh boy – this is not a smart move to find a French publisher, is it?
Lyda: Since we're both Dutch, I can ask you whether you believe that the more laissez-faire cultural style in the Netherlands has allowed for less standardization, less push from the powers-that-be to conform to one language standard, and more acceptance of varieties in the language.
Gaston: I believe the Dutch situation is more or less like that in English: there is a standard, but except in spelling, considerable variation is tolerated today, both regional and in levels of formality. What is peculiar about the linguistic culture of the Netherlands is the tendency to be lackadaisical about the future of the language. Universities are fast becoming English-only areas. As a result, the future elites will not be able to explain their fields of expertise to laypeople - that is to people like you me, because we're all laypeople in most fields. We may well lose the Dutch vocabulary for whole areas of human knowledge and endeavor. I may not lose sleep over it – I mean, climate change is worse – but I would consider it a great cultural loss.
Lyda: Since your travels and your language observations are so closely tied, do you consider yourself a linguist, or a geographer or what?
Gaston: I'm a linguist, but my type of linguistics requires a lot of historical and geographical knowledge. As it happens, one of my future projects will indeed concern itself with geography - with borders, to be exact. But I'd rather not elaborate at this stage.
Lyda: I've been particularly impressed by the style of the writing. You must have a very good translator for English. I'm very curious to read the Dutch version to see how some of the passages were written by you in the original.
Gaston: Thank you! Yes, Alison Edwards did an excellent job. So did most of the translators into other languages, by the way. It has been an absolute joy working with most of them, not only because they're such dedicated professionals, but also because having this book about languages translated into, say, Spanish or German has forced me to look at some languages afresh, from the perspective of these particular target languages. I've even been giving talks to translators in several countries about this aspect of Lingo.
Lyda: Anything else you'd like to add?
Gaston: One relevant fun fact is that I performed as a singer-songwriter for seven or eight years. I think it taught me the importance of drawing in an audience. The experience has definitely changed my writing, made it more personal and I hope more engaging. It has also taught me how to give talks. I used to be terrible at them, and now they're one of my favorite things to do.
Cet entretien est accessible en français ici.