This is an amazing book, but it is available only in Russian. It is written by two prominent linguists/journalists, one of whom worked as a translator for Russian presidents – Gorbachev, Eltsin, and Putin.
Despite the fact that those people are connected with the highest ranking officials of Russia, the book is written in a humorous style and is fun to read. The authors even dare to crack jokes about presidents and claim that during international meetings it is the translator who owns the world, not the world leaders.
The book presents interesting facts about world languages. The most surprising thing is the complexity of language. It turns out that the more complex the language, the fewer people there are who can speak it. For example, some minor language of Caucasus region has 16 noun cases, 17 verb tenses, and 10 verb moods. On the other hand, English has just 3 cases, 6 verb tenses, and 3 moods.
So how come all those ancient languages are so complicated? The authors suggest that earlier people put a lot more sense into each word depending on circumstances because they thought that words have magical power. These days, people often don’t pay attention to what they are saying. Gibberish is the norm of our society. But earlier people were frowned upon when they used a wrong word even if they did not intend to offend anybody. For example, today we can always use Mr/Mrs. to greet somebody. Earlier, greeting depended on the social class the person belonged to.
The authors try to explain why the old languages are so complicated. Their answer is that there is a master mind behind language design, that primitive people simply could not design languages of such complexity. However, as the time went by, people dropped features that looked unnecessary to them. It is interesting that not only theologists share such views.
Then the authors jump to a natural conclusion that there was a common predecessor of all human languages, a so-called pre-Babel tower language. So the Bible story is true, according to these prominent linguists. The authors claim that it is possible to track down evolution of language but unfortunately it takes a lot of learning to do that. One of the authors can fluently speak 30 languages, and apparently he was able to identify many similar roots in those languages. When people ask him, how many languages he knows, he typically answers that he knows just one language – the language of human beings.
Even present-day languages can put some influence on its speakers. When the authors who studied foreign languages in university worked in student labor camps, they were divided into groups based on which language they studied: “German” students, “French” students, etc. The authors say that German students were the most diligent, French were fighting for human rights all the time, etc. Time was passing by, generations of students were changing, but this rule was always true.
Then several chapters discuss the current state of Russian language, and how it transforms due to influence of Internet. The authors claim that it is not possible to artificially augment language with new words, the language will pick up what it needs to survive. In other words, the authors treat language as a living creature, not as a set of rules.
The speed of evolution is different for different languages. For example, Russians can read Pushkin (200 years ago), but they cannot read what was written 500 years ago. It was a totally different language. On the other hand, traditional Chinese language has not changed for several thousand years, and people can still read nowadays manuscripts written in B.C. era.
In Chapter 7 one of the authors describes his childhood. He was born in a small town in Moscow region in the family of teachers. From early childhood he discovered passion for foreign languages, and at the time of graduation from high school he could speak 5 languages. He says there was no particular incentive to learn languages, as in Soviet Union the travel abroad was strictly limited. Still, he says he often found the dictionaries of some esoteric languages in the town’s bookstore, and he was the only customer. But through these unusual books he was able to pick up valuable knowledge that happened to be very useful throughout his professional career as the Translator of President.
Well, this review is getting too long. I can only suggest that everybody read this book. It provides a fresh look at linguistics and can encourage you to learn more foreign languages.