Lingo in the New Yorker

Gaston Dorren‘s book Lingo got the following short-and-sweet write-up in the New Yorker last week:

LINGO, by Gaston Dorren, translated from the Dutch by Alison Edwards (Atlantic). In this playful survey of sixty languages spoken in Europe, each chapter takes a different approach: parody, folktale, personal essay. A lesson on the Cyrillic alphabet follows an extended metaphor in which window shades illustrate the range and influence of the three languages—Galician, Catalan, Castilian—at the top of the Iberian Peninsula. A venture into Scots Gaelic, which has only thirteen consonants to spell thirty consonant sounds, gives way to chapters on diacritics; diminutives and augmentatives in Italian; and the gender-neutral Swedish pronoun hen. The British Isles alone have nine languages (counting Channel Island Norman). Dorren gives voice to an important linguistic truth: “Today’s errors tend to become tomorrow’s correct usage.”



What’s in a name?

Observant, Maastricht

I’ve been flirting with the idea of adopting a new name.

For starters, I have to share my present name with about ten million other people. Being called Alison Edwards is like being Jan Jansen in Dutch, or at least the female equivalent thereof. To make matters worse, I don’t even have a middle name. In fairness it’s probably for the best I wasn’t given my mother’s middle name, Pamela – that would have left me facing a lifelong struggle with the initials APE. Christine would have been fine, though, or Catherine or Cecilia – then I would be ACE.

In the Netherlands my name comes off as a lot more exotic. The novelty wears off, however, when you have to repeat it a dozen times on introducing yourself. And as an unmistakeably English name, it goes hand in hand with the assumption that I mustn’t be able to speak Dutch. Introductions therefore tend to go as follows: ‘Alison.’ ‘What?’ ‘Alison.’ ‘What?’ ‘Alison. You know, kind of like Alice in Wonderland.’ At this point, people usually catch on and say, ‘Ahh!!! English?’ Followed by my awkward: ‘Right. Well, the name is English. But I’m not English. But yes, I’m English speaking. But I speak Dutch too though.’

The initial ordeal over with, I then find myself being referred to as Elison. This is preferable to the German variant, Elizon, but only marginally so. I’ve tried simplifying things by going with just Ali, but based on the spelling I tend to be taken for a Turkish man, and even then the A still comes out like an E. So I’ve decided to just ‘own’ it, as the Yanks would say, and embrace Elli as my Dutchified alter-ego. Replace that pesky Edwards with my husband’s last name, Lange, and in trial runs I’ve been finding that people actually get it first go. Better yet, they don’t notice at first that I’m foreign. It takes a few sentences for my accent to become apparent and the conversation to take that inevitable turn: ‘Ahh!!! English?’ ‘Right. Well yes, English speaking. I’m not English though …’

Elli Lange