Top critical review
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good, but a bit superficial
on 4 December 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. However, it makes the book hard to trust. For instance, because I know a bit about Celtic languages, I looked them up here. The author refers to Scottish Gaelic and Irish Gaelic simply as "Gaelic", implying that they are the same language but simply called different things in Scotland and Ireland. This is simply not the case. Furthermore, he states that there 100,000 speakers of Irish in Northern Ireland. Again, I know that this is at best a misleading figure. Irish is dead in Northern Ireland as native language, and there are not even that many speakers in the Republic of Ireland. Presumably this number comes from figures relating to the number of people who have done Irish at school, or who otherwise "have a little Irish". All of this makes me question everything else I read in the book.
In short, this book is nice for getting an overview of many languages. I don't regret buying it, but I was disappointed. If you want a quick reference to the world's many languages, this is it. But only use it for browsing, not as a reference, and realize that it only mentions 600 languages--about 1/10th of the world's languages.