Disclaimer: Please note I received a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.
When I spotted Keith Kahn-Harris’s The Babel Message: A Love Letter to Language on the publisher’s website, I must admit I was intrigued.
My own Medium bio reads language nerd, among other things. And it is a genuine way in which I would describe myself. From a young age, I’ve had a blooming love for the beauty and engineering — for lack of a better word — of languages.
I’m now fluent in three languages and know enough to understand another two, I’m learning a sixth and, needless to say, I’m having a blast doing it. In school, I studied Latin and, together with the other language lessons I was taking, I developed a sort of sixth sense for etymology and understanding of foreign languages.
Simply put, I can deduce quite accurately what words mean even in languages I’m not fluent in. If it has a Germanic or Latin, or even a Slavic origin, I’m pretty good at understanding the language in question.
This has always fascinated me: the way my brain perceived language and made these intricate connections between them in order to improve my understanding.
So of course I chose The Babel Message to review for you.
From the Publisher
“A thrilling journey deep into the heart of language, from a rather unexpected starting point.
Keith Kahn-Harris is a man obsessed with something seemingly trivial — the warning message found inside Kinder Surprise eggs:
WARNING, read and keep: Toy not suitable for children under 3 years. Small parts might be swallowed or inhaled.
On a tiny sheet of paper, this message is translated into dozens of languages — the world boiled down to a multilingual essence. Inspired by this, the author asks: what makes ‘a language’? With the help of the international community of language geeks, he shows us what the message looks like in Ancient Sumerian, Zulu, Cornish, Klingon — and many more. Along the way he considers why Hungarian writing looks angry, how to make up your own language, and the meaning of the heavy metal umlaut.
Overturning the Babel myth, he argues that the messy diversity of language shouldn’t be a source of conflict, but of collective wonder. This is a book about hope, a love letter to language.”
I absolutely loved the premise and execution of this book. It was a great palette cleanser from all the fiction I’ve consumed in the past couple of months.
My favourite part was the one about ‘conlags’ or constructed languages — languages that we can create ourselves. I’ve always been in awe of J. R. R. Tolkien specifically and his incredible ability to create a new language for the Lord of the Rings world.
I’ve also, probably like many others, always wondered how he, and many others after him, did it. Keith Kahn-Harris argues that conlags are among “humanity’s most audacious creations”. Apparently, the appendix of Arika Okrent’s book In the Land of Invented Languages, lists over 500 invented languages dating back from the 1100s and ending in the 1970s.
This is what you can expect from The Babel Message: each chapter analyses different elements of languages and how they have changed, evolved, been created and influenced the world, all through the premise and continuous translation of the Kinder Surprise Egg leaflet.
I’ll leave you with the Dothraki translation of the leaflet, provided in the book, cause I know there will be Game of Thrones fans reading this:
ASSIKHO, vitihiri majin vineseri: koholi vo movekkho entaan. Saccheya zoli lazim che ijela che leshita.
I didn’t want to give away too much of this book, because the true value of reading it lies in the sheer amount of information and creativity that you’ll discover with every page. It was a solid 4/5 stars for me and I found out so much about language, so it definitely met my expectations above and beyond.
Eliza Lita is a freelance writer based in the UK. She covers books and reading, fitness, lifestyle, and personal development. For more of her stories, please consider signing up for a Medium membership through her referral link.