Book Review: The Atlas of Unusual Languages by Zoran Nikolić

A book cover featuring some unusual letters and accents.

We communicate through the spoken and written word and language has evolved over the centuries. Many languages have survived although only in small pockets throughout the world. This book explores a selection of those languages.

Did you know that some people believe that the speakers of Burushaski, the language of a distant valley below the Himalayas, are actually the descendants of the soldiers of Alexander the Great? And that, even though the Venetian language is not official in Venice, it is spoken in several locations in Latin America?

From ‘language isolates’ such as Basque, spoken in Spain and France, and Ainu in Japan and Russia, to language islands including a Welsh speaking colony in Argentina–discover how geography shapes communication and societies.

I was disappointed with this book. It starts with a hefty disclaimer:

Please note that the author of this book is not a linguist and the book is not intended to be read as a scientific work. Instead, it’s simply a collection of some interesting linguistic curiosities and should be viewed as such.

It's hard to call this a book. It really is a collection of snippets from Wikipedia. There's no real description of what makes a language, nor how they evolve. In fact, the book rarely tells us anything about a language other than it exists.
Once in a while, it mentions how a counting system works ("one, two, many") but it never attempts to tell us any of the language features. Is this language peculiar in not having a past tense? Does that language have different prefixes for male and female nouns? Do these people not have words for left and right - instead referring to East and West? No idea. If it isn't in the first paragraph of the encyclopedia entry, it doesn't get a mention.

Instead of an actual investigation into these languages, everything is written with hedging statements. "It is believed...", and "According to legend (and claims on social media)...", and "It is assumed..."

The book contains translated passages of "The Little Prince" to compare languages. Again, these have been lifted wholesale from another book. And, again, they don't tell us anything interesting about the languages. What is the etymology of "Dywysog"? What does that tell us about how the language evolved?

There are a few photos of some of the more unusual written languages - but they're nothing more than a passing mention.

Similarly, there's a single paragraph devoted to whistling languages! And it's little more than a list. How do whistling languages work? Are there any similarities between them? The book is silent.

As a coffee-table book, it's fine. Nice large photos (again, taken from Wikipedia) and some light text to skim. But if you want any information about languages and what makes them unusual, you'll need to look elsewhere.

Thanks to NetGalley for the review copy.

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