The Babel Message by Keith Kahn-Harris

The Babel Message: A Love Letter to Language by Keith Kahn-Harris
PUBLISHERS: Icon Books
ISBN: 9781785787379
PRICE: 12.99 GBP
PAGES: 336
PUBLICATION DATE: 04/11/2021

If you are fascinated by the origins of words, the history of languages, or like to fiddle with Duolingo in your free time and marvel at the foreign phrases, this book is for you. Keith Kahn-Harris, a polyinterested author and sociologist, takes an unusual object and turns it into a narrative about multilingual love. Harris makes a witty case for readers to embrace being language fans if they are not already. I am a trilingual person fluent in English, Hindi, and Bengali. I have a beginner’s knowledge of Sanskrit still I am not fluent in any other language. I have stacks of foreign language books on my shelves like Urdu and Arabic, but all I do is enjoy the peculiarities of tongues I don’t understand. Lately, Latin and Greek claimed my attention during the pandemic. It is no wonder this book was a delight for a person like me. The author himself admits to his only fluency in English, but he is fascinated by the diversity of languages. The entire book is about translations of a warning message found in the Kinder Surprise eggs manufactured by Ferrero. For those who don’t know the details, Kinder Surprise eggs are egg-shaped chocolate shells containing a small toy inside them. The warning message reads:

WARNING, read and keep: Toy not suitable for children under 3 years. Small parts might be swallowed or inhaled.

In the first part, the author introduces us to the linguistic complexity of the warning message inside the package. The tiny slip of paper the author writes about holds 37 languages in eight different scripts. I think this complexity exists in many internationally distributed products. How many of us pause and read the scrimp lines on a tiny piece of paper? We probably throw it away. Who knew a warning message could open Pandora’s box of linguistic detective work?

The message pays tribute to the superficiality of loving languages. It invites the reader to embrace learning new words, phrases, and translations, and get joy out of collecting details. A collector’s joy is as glorious as a specialist’s. As we dive deep into the translations of the warning message, it transports us to the vibrant and variable tongues around the world. To give away these exercises in linguistics classes is to spoil the book. Nevertheless, a few bits and bobs will interest the reader to grab a copy soon.

Indian readers are familiar with the visual diversity of foreign scripts. Many of us are familiar with Indo-Aryan, Dravidian, and Tibeto-Burman languages. Fans of Asian and Arabic calligraphy will notice the stark difference in these scripts from others. Harris goes into a charming discussion about diacritics and ligatures found in Spanish, Hungarian, Danish, etc. He writes that ‘English is plain vanilla diacritic-wise.’ Once your eyes start noticing the various scripts on the pages, you realize how many ticks, squiggles, and dashes accompany letters in languages other than English. You don’t have to be a language expert to admire this beauty.

The book delves into the complex socio-political landscape of countries through closely-related languages and dialects. Whether it’s the official two variants of Norwegian, the Gheg and Tosk variants of Albanian, the multiple tongues of Serbo-Croatian, or the Moldovan-Romanian duo, the translations will deeply interest you in the histories of these nations. It begs the question of nation-states and nationalism itself. Harris writes,

National languages were often originally regional languages, raised to domination by a mixture of deliberate efforts and natural selection. […] Standardization usually involved disparaging ‘non-standard’ tongues. This process has proceeded at different rates and is tied to the wider extent of political centralisation.

How does language diversity heal the recent turmoil of border disputes, immigration, and the rise of right-wing nationalistic agendas? How are languages disappearing all over the world? Do we need to preserve endangered regional and Indigenous tongues? These are some of the questions that crept up on me while I read about various endangered dialects. Midway through the book, I had to keep the world map handy. Quite frankly, this book is a lesson in international diplomatic relations. Also, I was curious to know how Maghrebi Arabic, spoken in North Africa, differs from Yemeni Arabic. The book can do this to you. Fair warning for a tumble down the rabbit hole.

One of my favorite chapters in the book is devoted to ancient languages. Curiously the chapter begins with the warning message translated into Braille. Language as a tactile experience is exemplified in the origin, history, and use of Braille. Harris also includes QR codes in the book which the reader can scan and see videos for translations in American Sign Language (ASL). This isn’t simply an exercise in creating additional content for the book. Harris writes,

I chose to include QR codes to link to the videos to make the point that, even if a mode of communication may only employ a limited range of our human capacity, humans have found ways to ‘extend’ ourselves.

In a world where language has moved on to tapping fingertips on a glass panel, it is difficult to trace the origins of the first language in humankind’s history. It must have involved making gestures, noises, music, or even touching like hand-holding to convey meaning. The importance of context surfaces when the message is translated into ancient Sumerian and Egyptian. Some ancient languages do not have words for their modern counterparts. Old Norse does not have a word for ‘inhale’ whereas Biblical Hebrew lacks a word for ‘toy’.

Finally, if the linguistic nitty-gritty gets too complex, the reader can enjoy the chapter on ‘constructed’ languages or ‘conlangs.’ There’s some Klingon and Mando’a (language of the Mandalorians in the Star Wars universe) for readers. David Peterson, the creator of Valyrian and Dothraki gives a translation of the message in Dothraki:

ASSIKHOF, vitihiri majin vineseri: koholi vo movekkho entaan. Saccheya zoli lazim che ijela che leshita.

I enjoyed this book immensely. Harris has additional content on his website that invites the readers on this translation journey. I bought my first Kinder Joy egg after reading this book to have fun with the warning label. I have read language books like Guy Deutscher’s Through the Language Glass, Daniel Everett’s How Language Began, Coulter H. George’s How Dead Languages Work, and Max Barry’s brilliant novel Lexicon. Harris’s book was a sumptuous buffet of all things linguistic pleasure. I highly recommend this as a great addition to your language books and a gift for language lovers.

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