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The Languages of the World [Paperback]

Kenneth Katzner
3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
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Book Description

21 Mar 2002 0415250048 978-0415250047 3
This third edition of Kenneth Katzner's best-selling guide to languages is essential reading for language enthusiasts everywhere. Written with the non-specialist in mind, its user-friendly style and layout, delightful original passages, and exotic scripts, will continue to fascinate the reader. This new edition has been thoroughly revised to include more languages, more countries, and up-to-date data on populations.
Features include:
*information on nearly 600 languages
*individual descriptions of 200 languages, with sample passages and English translations
*concise notes on where each language is spoken, its history, alphabet and pronunciation
*coverage of every country in the world, its main language and speaker numbers
*an introduction to language families

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Product details

  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Routledge; 3 edition (21 Mar 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0415250048
  • ISBN-13: 978-0415250047
  • Product Dimensions: 23 x 16 x 2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 320,376 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

More About the Author

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Product Description


'A reference tool for all linguists as well as a collector's item for those in allied fields, enabling even an amateur to identify foreign scripts with ease and satisfaction ... to be recommended.' - Modern Language Review

'A wholly fascinating mini-kaleidoscope indicating the largely diverse variety of the world's main languages and their scripts and of their cultures.' - The Good Book Guide

About the Author

Prior to his recent retirement, Kenneth Katzner worked for the US government and also served as an editor on a number of international encyclopedias and English dictionaries. He is also author of a large English-Russian/Russian-English Dictionary.

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Customer Reviews

3.2 out of 5 stars
3.2 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars good, but a bit superficial 4 Dec 2002
This is a good book, not a great book. It gives a lot of general information about a lot of languages, which is really nice. A table at the beginning provides a good, quick reference to the world's languages' "family tree". Following this, the first part of the book discusses the various language families, with more detail about languages in the Indo-European and Afro-Asiatic branches. The second part, covering about 200 individual languages, is really what the book is all about. This section is organized by place rather than language family, so the first section is "Languages of Europe" and the other sections are for the former Soviet Union, the Middle East, Asia, Oceania, the Western Hemisphere, and Africa. There is also one more thrown in for good measure: "An artificial language", which discusses Esperanto. This organization is perhaps a bit odd from a linguist's perspective, but it does work very well for browsing (which is really what this book is geared towards). Fortunately, if you are looking for information on a specific language, there is an index of all the languages mentioned in the book. For each language there is a sample of the its script and a short description, usually identifying where it is spoken, how many speakers, relations to other languages and so on. The length and quality of these descriptions vary. Finally, the third part of the book is a country-by-country survey, arranged in alphabetical order. This gives each country's total population, languages spoken, and the number of speakers of those languages.
Now, although this all sounds really good (and it is), there are major weaknesses in the book. This comes primarily from the fact that the author has obviously got his information from countless different sources, as no one person can be an expert in all languages.
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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
This book ought to have a different name, as it doesn't actually tell you much about the languages, but rather about which letters do and do not exist in each language, which is rather irrelevant information. For a linguist, the text is nearly completely useless. The one good thing to say about this work is that it supplies examples from a lot of languages, something which is otherwise hard to find in one or few books. It would be extremely more useful for me as a linguist if there was a translitteration and if possible a quasi-translation under each line of the texts, as a text written in an asian script you have never heard of gives you nothing more than a superficial impression of how it looks - it certainly has nothing to do with the language that it is used to write.
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6 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent overview of the world's languages 6 Oct 2003
By Richard
I really enjoyed reading this book. The problem that the author faces is that each of us would probably have chosen a different selection of languages according to our own personal identity and interests. I found languages which I had never before come across such as Chukchi in Siberia. I like the way the book gives an example of the written language, a translation and then goes on to write about the main chosen languages. Many more are mentioned, and there is a nice table of language families, which acts as a very nice and accurate reference for amateur linguists like myself. As a bilingual speaker of Scottish Gaelic (and of course English), I would have liked to see more on our fascinating language, not least because our language is going through a crucial phase, with the number of speakers dangerously low, but the development in recent years of schooling through the language and an iminent bill set to go through the Scottish Parliament giving Scottish Gaelic for the first time ever secure status. Maybe there would be an interest for such a book as this to be written on a selection of minority languages for more general reading. Joshua Shipman has written excellent books on the subject of minority languages in terms of expert analysis. In short, I would recommend this book, Languages of the World as an interesting overview of languages of the world. I was delighted to see the inclusion of such languages as Bushman, Aranda and Tok Pigin. It would be better if all the scripts had been transliterated underneath into roman script.
Mar sin, chòrd an leabhar seo rium math dha-rìribh.
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2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Very nice book 3 Oct 2003
By Richard
I thought that this book gave a very good introduction to the amateur linguist like myself to the better known and some of the lesser known languages of the world. I also enjoyed looking at the scripts of the different languages. So to anyone with a passion for languages I would recommend this book. It is my belief that had we each been asked to write such a book on a given number of languages that we could come up with a different selection according to our own identity and interests.
Coming from the perspective of a speaker of Scottish Gaelic, I must admit that I was a bit disappointed in the way our language was put as a subscript after Irish. Whereas it is certainly true that we are trying to strengthen links between us, it would be inaccurate in any way to portray that Scottish Gaelic is a mere dialect of Irish, for despite being a fluent speaker of Scottish Gaelic, I struggle to understand the beautiful Irish language.
I enjoy greatly reading about such languages as Chukchi and Tok Pijin, which leave me fascinated when I browse through the book. In these days of globalisation it is important to maintain and indeed strengthen our self-identity, and language is possibly the greatest scense of self-identity that we behold. To learn about others is a great interest of mine, and this book has provided enjoyable reading.
(Summary in Scottish Gaelic:)
Mar sin, chòrd an leabhar seo rium gu mòr agus ma tha ùidh agad air cànanan, mholainn gun ceannaich sibh e. Tha e a' sealltainn eisimpleir den cànan air a sgrìobhadh còmhla ri eadar-theangachadh aig a' bhonn agus an uair sin, beagan gearr-chunntas air eachdraidh agus coir a' chànain.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.5 out of 5 stars  15 reviews
22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fun book, but not the "last word" on world languages 8 Aug 2004
By John A. Dodds - Published on
Kenneth Katzner has set himself a difficult task--review the languages of the world in a reasonably-sized volume. This means that, inevitably, a lot of important detail is going to be left out. Most, but not all, nations have their national languages recognized here. Some smaller languages are included both for completeness and for examples of interesting linguistic variations. One, Naxi, spoken in Yunnan, China, is still written with little pictures; a stick figure jumping represents dancing, for instance.

Some other reviewers have complained that there is a lack of detail about the writing systems, so that seeing the original language and its translation is not that helpful. This does not account for the complexity of some of these alphabets, like Burmese or Thai or Devenagari (Hindi and some other Indian languages); which have a LOT of letters and modifications of letters. Once you start down that road, the book could easily double in size! However, he does explain a little about how some alphabets work, like how Korean (Hangul alphabet) has its letters grouped into little three-letter clusters, not written in a straight line.

One major improvement that would help a future edition of the book: Typeset the foreign languages! Clearly, some samples are photoreproduced from old sources, and the letters are unclear and hard to see and/or of poor overall quality (and vary in size from language to language, even languages using the same alphabet). This is particularly noticeable with some of the odder Asian scripts. The Unicode project is trying to allow computers to recognize nearly any script (even obscure ones); the next edition of this book should take advantage of such advances and typeset those languages that are not in this edition.

Another useful item, but harder to implement, would be detailed transliterations of each foreign language passage (at least those in non-Roman scripts). Then the reader could see (at least approximately) how various words and letters are written and spoken in the language in question. This opens up a whole new set of problems, of course; Mandarin Chinese and Cantonese are the same in writing but vastly different in speech, so would they both have to be represented? That dialect question would crop up a lot. Some languages are written in more than one script, too, or have transitioned from one to another recently. Showing such languages in both scripts is fun, but rarely done in this book, even when the book mentions that the language has multiple scripts.

But overall, the book is a fun introduction to many languages and will familiarize the reader with the "look" of many of them.
24 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Can Tell You A Lot About Languages--And The World 15 Mar 2003
By K. Johnson - Published on
Kenneth Katzner provides a well written and concisely presented book for those interested in the world's languages, their origins, growth and transformations, and linguistic relatives. The languages are listed by familial grouping, then individual languages, and then nation by nation. Easy-to-read charts elucidating families, sub-groups, branches, and major and minor languages are listed in the front of the book. Individually, the languages are listed in the index in the back of the book in alphabetical order making them easy to find and cross-reference. One can quickly find which languages are related via sub-families. You can bounce around from page to page with this.
Each language listed is presented with a sample such as a poem or proverb followed by an English transliteration. Also included is the number of people who speak it, and in what different parts of the world. The languages' family, idiocyncracies, major grammar points, alphabet, and stresses are noted. As an example, here's a paraphrase of the Finnish language presented in the book:
Spoken by 5 million speakers in Finland, 70,000 in the U.S., 200,000 in Sweden and 50,000 in Russia. Finnish is one of the few languages in Europe that is not of the Indo-European languages family. Like Estonian, it belongs to the Finno-Ugric languages which are a branch derived from the Uralic family. Finnish is difficult language to learn for Western native speakers because of it's non Indo-European origins and the the fact that it has 15 noun cases.
Also in the beginning is a biography of the families of languages and explanations of the migrations of people, many thousands of years ago, that has created the current multi-varied linguistic make up of our world today.
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Very good for basic knowledge despite a few errors. 24 Mar 2005
By Eric Andrew - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I own both the second and third editions of this book, and I can attest that the improvements in the third edition make this volume far more valuable than before. Katzner now provides far more general information about language families that should satisfy the curiosity of someone not in this field. Also, the individual language entries were updated. I especially value the language map.

My two main gripes with the book are: 1) there isn't enough information about individual languages, especially those with non-Roman character sets; and 2) there are some errors that need to be corrected. One of the most glaring errors that I noticed within 3 minutes of opening the new edition is Katzner's remark that the ß (eszet) character was totally eliminated from the German language in the 1998 spelling reform. This is undeniably false.
29 of 36 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Should be called alphabets of the world 19 Nov 2003
By FretiCat - Published on
This book is almost useless unless you like looking at foreign alphabets without understanding the smallest thing about the languages that use them. Katzner gives you a sample passage of a language in its native script with an English translation, but does nothing to impart a sense of what the language actually means or how it sounds. So, unless you can actually read the Cyrillic, Arabic or Hanggul scripts , or know the writings used to represent Buginese, Burmese, Tamil, Sanskrit or dozens of others, you know next to nothing about the language itself. There are no grammatical data given, nor any sense of how each language expresses itself. One mistake he makes over and over is confusing letters and sounds - the two are not the same, but Katzner doesn't seem to realize it.

So if you want to look at Tibetan and say to yourself, "Gee, that's a nice looking bit of writing", this is a good book for you. If you have any linguistic training, this will be a nice curiousity on your shelf. If you want to know more about Tibetan (or any of the other languages included), it will be a disappointment.
13 of 16 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Could have been so much better 31 Dec 2004
By Solivagant - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
The book is in 3 main parts.
Part 1 consists of a 32 page review of the Language Families of the world and packs quite a lot into this space.
Part III is again a c30 page review of the languages in use in "all" the countries of the world with indications of numbers of speakers and geographical location - again it is quite a good summary.
Part II on the other hand is the heart of the book and reviews around 200 languages giving each 1 or 2 pages (occasionally up to 4 eg for English and Chinese) - around 300 of the c 380 pages. Each language is represented by a passage of literature printed in the alphabet currently used for the language followed by an English translation. This is then followed by a review of the language setting out, inter alia,
a. Where spoken/numbers of people
b. Development history
c. Peculiarities of the alphabet, grammar and pronunciation
d. Comparisons with "near neighbours"
e. Words taken into English
f. Great writers and literature in the language

My main gripes concern
a. the balance of space given to the literature and that given to the review
b. The usefulness of the literature sample especially where it is written in an alphabet unintelligable to "western" readers
c. the comprehensiveness and consistency of the reviews themselves.

My conclusions are that far too much space is given to the literature sample and that the review is often incredibly thin with no consistency regarding coverage of aspects a-f. Also since the book makes no attmept to explore and explain alphabets all the examples of different alphabets are little better than useless!

Thus Afrikaans is given 1.3 pages of which 1 consists of a 4 stanza poem and its translation. This leaves just 13 lines for the language review, most of which is taken up with the "where spoken" information - which is largely a repeat of what is under S Africa and Namibia in section III together with a 4 line "history" and a mention of 1 "divergence" from Dutch. Two thirds of the page is left empty! This is just not good enough even for a non specialist book as this is. What are we supposed to gain from the poem and its translation? I can draw little from the translation other than some idea that a few words bear some similarity to English. Whether Afrikaans is a good means of expressing poetic ideas is not indicated and may or may not be derived from the translation. Nothing is said of "loan words" in English, nothing about the process of Afrikaans becoming a separate language or the nature of the divergence of grammar, pronunciation or vocabulary from Dutch (apart from 1 word).

A look at the "Bushman" language has half a page taken up with a story about a leopard. It utilises an "alphabet" with number of strange "characters" whose function is not clear and it gives no indication of the capabilities of the language. Whilst only 5 lines are given to a review of the language itself, again much of which repeats section III. The conventions/alphabet used are not described at all, there is no assessment of grammar, word order, cases, tenses, size of vocabulary etc etc

And so it goes on - 1 whole page of Kashmiri script, half a page of translation (much of which consists of proper nouns -Gods etc!) and 10 lines again mainly on who/where spoken. Of the language itself one learns little or nothing

So much more could have been done even within the size of the book as printed
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