Linguistic Travel

The route less traveled

Destination: Europe

Book: Mother Tongues: Travels Through Tribal Europe (2001) by Helena Drysdale

I have touted The Browser and the newsletter of its Five Books  as a great source to learn about books in specific subject matter. Here’s part of a review of language books from Five Books of language books by Henry Hitchings, a writer and critic specializing in non fiction:

I happen to like travel writing a lot as a genre, and this (Mother Tongues) is a travel book which has a linguistic thread running through it. It works extremely well just as a travel book, because she goes to lots of off-the-beaten-track places. She’s attracted to the ethnically confused borderlands and edgelands of Europe, where so-called “minority languages” are spoken. The indigenous inhabitants have a visceral, romantic, embattled, nationalistic spirit. We’re talking about people like the Bretons, the Corsicans, the Lapps and the Basques. It’s a very original idea for a travel book. I read it a few years ago when I was travelling through the Baltic states and then on to Russia – looking at those countries in the hangover of Soviet influence, and the way the indigenous languages were used. It was an interesting backdrop.

It’s a very ambitious mix of travelogue, politics and anthropology, written in a really accessible way. Again, this is a book I stumbled upon and it exceeded my expectations. It was also just different from my expectations, and that’s exciting. It’s a meticulously researched book, but it’s also very funny about the misunderstandings between communities and the quirks of these embattled nationalist figures. And it’s quite an impressive feat of travel. She covers a lot of ground, goes to places which aren’t necessarily on the tourist map, be they Macedonia or northern Finland, and her findings are really quite surprising.

I have a few opinions of Helena Drysale‘s book myself, but Mother Tongues is, as Hitchings says, ambitious–which makes it difficult to share all my thoughts in a small space.  It strikes me that this would be a great choice for a book club, because everyone will have opinions on parts of it. I will just say that I had mixed feelings. Great research. Fascinating facts about languages. Detailed descriptions of place. Annoying children.

Let’s just take a few excerpts:

Stacks of the London Library
Stacks in the London Library

Research–I certainly related to this statement early in the book.

Crepuscular days were whiled away between dusty Topography and musty Philology.  The secrecy of these book-lined tunnels [in the London Library] had an oddly sexual allure, like the recesses of a church. They also enabled me to postpone having to write anything. 

Linguistics–If you learn one major thing in this book, you learn  that French, German, English, Spanish and Italian and other languages you have heard about do not cover the waterfront. What is the difference between a dialect and an actual separate language? In Province, she got this from a speaker of Provinçal.

Annie explained that the languages of France had nothing in common with each other.  Celtic Breton is totally different from Romance Occitan, German Alsatian, or Basque Basque. And they are all different from French…A dialect becomes a language when it is sufficiently different from another dialect as to be mutually unintelligible [which is] a subjective response.

Regional Differences— Some regions defy logic. I could spend all day talking about her section on Åland, an island region located between Sweden and Findland, Finnish by political boundary, Swedish by custom and language. (We visited there and loved the place–look for more about Åland in a later article.) She interviews someone who explains the law.

You can buy property in Åland only if you are a Finnish citizen, have lived here for at least five years, and can demonstrate that you have a good command of Swedish.

This 1933 picture of a Lapp–now Sami–child is in the sort of costume I saw illustrated in color. And riding a reindeer!!

And then she moves on to the Sami, a once nomadic people, who inhabit the northern reaches of Sweden, Norway, Finland and a corner of Russia. As a child, I saw pictures of Lapland children (the former name of the Sami) and it made me want to travel to see these lucky kids who played with reindeer. But the Sami have not been so lucky, of all the minority groups Drysdale writes about, the Sami had the worst treatment. It sounds very much like the way European colonists treated American Indians.

[Drysdale quotes  a 17th century book about the Lapps], “After the Swedes had learnt from the Finlanders that they were called Lappi, or banished persons, they also gave them the same name, then the Danes took it up, then Saxo, and so at last all the country was called Lapland…”

In Basque country (which they prefer to call the Basque nation), a butcher teaches her vocabulary, particularly some words he loves, in what Drysdale calls a “Scrabble-winning language” (so many x’s and z’s).

‘Crab’ is karramarro; ‘rubbish’ is zarramarra; ‘spider’, armiarma; ‘whisper’ zurrumuru….’scribbling’ zirrizarra.

Note: At this point we must pause because my spell checker is having the vapors.

The oldest / Lo más antiguo
Old town in Catalonia

And how do you like the independent and proud Catalans of Spain? Their medieval oath of allegiance to the King went like this:

‘We, who are s good as you, swear to you, who are no better than us, to accept you as our king and sovereign lord, provided you observe all our liberties and laws–but if not, not.”

Descriptions of Place– The family, husband and wife, two little girls– one has her 1st  birthday on the road and is nearly 2 at the end, the other has her 4th birthday– travel for nearly two years in a camper to places that are joined politically to a major country, but separated by language. The European Union even has a “European Bureau  for Lesser-Known Languages.”  But I digress. Drysdale describes the difficulties of this form of travels and describes lesser-known corners of Europe with great flare.

This book belongs in the travel library of 1) anyone fascinated by linguistics and/or independence movements among minorities; 2) travelers who look for off-beat places to visit; 3) travelers who think they have seen all of Europe; 4) families who are planning travel by motor home/RV in lesser-known Eruope. You can find dozens of blogs and websites dedicated to family travel by RV.  If I find one I particularly like, I’ll let you know, if you promise to do the same. Okay?

I found the wonderful pictures here  on Flickr. Kind photographers allow them to be used under a Creative Commons license. You can click on the picture to learn more about the photo and about the photographers.  Any links to Amazon in this post are affiliate links, meaning that anything you buy by following those links, although it costs you no more, will give a few cents to support A Traveler’s Library. I bought this book at Amazon, and now, you can too!

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About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

2 thoughts on “Linguistic Travel

  1. Definitely sounds like a thought-provoking book.

    It puts me in mind of dialects that survive miles from their place of origin. For instance, old Cornish usage survives in parts of the Maryland Eastern Shore and archaic and unique terms survive among the Scotch-Irish settlers of Appalachia.

    Nationalism isn’t the only reason dialects survive. Sometimes, good old isolation works just as well.

    1. I knew about the Scotch-Irish settlers language–some linguists think they speak something closer to Elizabethan English than today’s English. I didn’t know about the Cornish on the Maryland Eastern Shore.
      It can be chicken and egg on isolation and language, from what Drysdale reports in her book.
      The feelings of Nationalism often derive from the fact the language gives people something in common–a common cause as it were. But in many cases they have no interest in nationhood–just want respect for their language.

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