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Review of  An Encyclopedia of the Languages of Europe

Reviewer: Robert McColl Millar
Book Title: An Encyclopedia of the Languages of Europe
Book Author: Glanville Price
Publisher: Wiley
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Language Documentation
Issue Number: 12.1611

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Price, Glanville, ed. (2000) Encyclopedia of the Languages of Europe.
Blackwell Publishers, paperback ISBN: 0-631-22039-9, xvii+499 pp., $34.95.

With an immense range, this book attempts to classify, map and describe
all of the languages of Europe, both contemporary and historical.
Including entries written by around sixty scholars of international
repute, the collection provides both depth and breadth in terms of
coverage and range of materials employed. It would be almost impossible
to give an impression of the all the many fine features which it
Given that our definition of what 'Europe' actually means is
somewhat problematical, it is refreshing that as broad a framework for
such a concept is taken as is possible. Thus, the contributors have not
been afraid to discuss the Caucasian or Samoyedic languages, as well as
discussing a number of languages not native to Europe which have been
brought by a number of recent migrations, and the various sign
languages used by the hearing-impaired communities. This spirit of
inclusiveness is also extended to a number of languages, such as
Pictish or the early tongues of Italy such as North Picenian, where
modern scholarly conjecture about origins and relationship has produced
more material than has survived of the languages themselves. Also
refreshing is the fact that the largely sociolinguistic distinction
between language and dialect is occasionally side-stepped. Thus speech
varieties which are generally considered to be dialects of a language,
such as Picard, are given separate entries, along the same lines as
Scots or Gascon, which many scholars would accept for a number of
criteria as Ausbau languages.
A further interesting feature of the Encyclopedia is that where
it makes more sense to discuss an area rather than any specific
language, it is the linguistic features of the area which are
discussed. This is particularly fruitful in the discussion of Belgium,
Switzerland and Italy. Especially informative and useful is the
discussion of the linguistic situation in the Caucusus, where the
Caucasian languages are discussed together with proper reference both
to their position and their relationship (historical and linguistic) to
the other languages. The community languages of recent immigrants to
Europe are also discussed within the book, although this is confined to
Britain, France and the Netherlands. It might have been interesting to
compare Germany (not here discussed), whose immigrant communities have
been (at least until recently) largely speakers of European languages
(in the broadest sense). Further, separate (and illuminating)
information is given on the various scripts associated with Europe
(such as Glagolithic) with an interpretation of what their symbols
might represent.
As is to be expected, some of the entries are longer than
others; indeed, not all of the shorter entries are ascribed to any
given contributor: in this sense, Glanville Price's presence as the
'binding' for the whole is particularly, and benignly, present. With
the larger entries a certain amount of leeway has obvuiously been given
to the contributors; however, a standard pattern is followed. For
example, with the entry on Albanian (contributed by Monica Genesin), a
brief introduction to the language is followed by a discussion of its
history, its earliest texts, the literary tradition, the standard
language, what scripts have been used for the language, the dialects,
foreign influences, the present situation and outlying communities.
Naturally, the longer the written history of the language, or the
larger the number of speakers there are, the more in-depth it is
possible to be. In general the longer (and some of the shorter) entries
are followed by a bibliography, which may not be taken to be sources
for the actual entry, but as opportunities for further reading.
Gratifyingly, not all of these are in English; indeed many eastern
European sources in a variety of languages are given specific
foregrounding. Thus the book acts as both a single volume reference
work and as a conduit to more in-depth study of a given language or
area. Equally helpful in its employment is a simple yet
well-constructed form of cross-reference.
One of the interesting (and fruitful) elements of the book is
the fact that not all entries entirely agree with each other. This is
most notable in the discussion of the lesser-used languages of the
North of Italy and Switzerland of Romance origin (Romansch, Ladin and
Friulian), where there is genuine disagreement over their nature and
origin. There is no attempt to gloss over this dissent. This, I would
argue, is one of the strong points of the Encyclopedia.
It is a wonderful book to browse and dip into; the present
reviewer was dazzled by its highly readable combination of erudition
and approachability at one sitting. It will certainly stand as one of
the major linguistic resources, complimenting and adding to the equally
worthy Ethnologue (2000), and superseding the rather more statistically
oriented collections of Kloss and McConnell (1974-1984).
Having said all of this, it is dangerously churlish to make any
criticism of the work.. However, there are a number of minor errors in
it. In the article on Aramaic, Dovid Katz writes, 'The biblical
narrative describing Abraham, the first Jew, as a migrant from Ur of
the Chaldees who resettled in Canaan (Genesis 11.31) has undoubtedly
contributed to the permanent mystique of Aramaic among Jews.' (p.12)
This seems to have little or no relationship to the rest of the entry,
at least as it stands at present.
In the entry on Armenian by Vrej Nerses Nersessian, there is
another puzzling comment. He writes, 'The Armenian community in Iran
provides the Iranians with an unbroken cultural link with their Aryan
past.' (p.17) It is difficult to see what this might mean since one can
assume that the Iranians themselves are 'Aryan' enough. Nersessian may
be implying that the Armenians can be associated with a given culture
in a particular region over an extended period of time; however, the
conversion of Armenia to Christianity is not that much earlier than the
conversion of Iran to Islam. Both can be portrayed as significant
cultural (and perhaps even linguistic) watersheds.
A further criticism might be that whilst, on occasion, such as
in P.V. Davies' entry on Gascon, there are phonemic descriptions of the
distinctiveness of a given speech variety, and even rarer occasions
where syntactic or morphological distinctions are discussed, the
collection would be much more fulfilling for a linguist if the
excellent extralinguistic material was supplemented by a discussion of
the fundamental 'building blocks' of a given language. This is
particularly frustrating in the discussion of Slovenian (or Slovak) and
what makes it different from closely related languages. Perhaps the
exigencies of space explain this omission. It should be noted that this
omission is less visible with discussions of lexis (which might be more
readily comprehensible to an interested lay person), and that the
source materials at the end of a given entry would present just such
information, however.
On a much pettier level, the discussion of Danish by Robin
Allen makes the claim (p.123) that King Alfred of Wessex translated the
History of the World of Orosius personally, despite the fact that Janet
Bately demonstrated in the 1960s that the Orosius is a product of the
school which Alfred created, rather than a personal creation (Bately
Another questionable statement is where Roel Vismans, in his
discussion of Dutch, states that, 'The source of the English term
'Dutch', as of German deutsch 'German', is Latin theodiscus (the word
Teutonic is related) 'the language of the people', as opposed to the
language of the Church, i.e. Latin.' There is certainly a Late Latin
word theodiscus; it itself is demonstrably a borrowing from
pre-existing Germanic roots, however.
Yet despite these quibbles (which are minor) it is the
impression of the number, diversity and fruitfulness of the languages
of Europe which remain long in this reviewer's mind. Having read it, it
is difficult to see how to do without it.

Works cited

Bately, J.M. (1966) The Old English Orosius: the Question of
Dictation, Anglia 84, 255-304.

Grimes, Barbara F. (ed.) 2000) Ethnologue. Languages of the World,
Fourteenth Edition, SIL International

Kloss, Heinz and McConnell, Grant D. (eds.) (1974-1984) Linguistic
composition of the nations of the world, P.U. Laval

Robert McColl Millar is a Lecturer in Linguistics at the University of
Aberdeen. The author of System Collapse, System Rebirth: The
Demonstrative Systems of English 900-1350 and the Birth of the Definite
Article (Bern and Oxford, Peter Lang, 2000), he is at present at work
on another monograph entitled Language and Locale in modern Scotland:
language description and language attitudes in the Statistical Accounts
of Scotland. He is co-ordinator of the Language and Identities in the
North-East of Scotland initiative.


Format: Paperback
ISBN: 0631220399
ISBN-13: N/A
Pages: 480
Prices: U.S. $ 38.95
U.K. £ 19.99