Price, Glanville (ed.), 1998:

Encyclopedia of the Languages of Europe

Oxford: Blackwell. Pp. xvii + 499

ISBN 0-631-19286-7(hardback) £75.00

reviewed by

Nigel Armstrong

Department of French Studies, University of Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 7RU

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First published in Web Journal of Modern Language Linguistics in association with the publishers (to be announced). © 1998 Nigel Armstrong.
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The stated aim of this volume is the description of all the languages of Europe, the living as well as the dead. Though not a specialist, I hazard the observation that any languages omitted from this volume will be obscure indeed. A further achievement, in execution if not intention, has been to realize this aim in a compendious format. This enterprise involves the inclusion of over 300 languages, from Abaza to Zyrian. The book includes extra-European languages spoken by ethnic minorities in European countries; again, this criterion involves quasi-dead languages. An interesting example is Aramaic, the language of Christ and included here by virtue of its being studied still in European Jewish communities, where indeed texts continue to be composed in the language. Regarding the volume's compendiousness, the compactness implied by that term is not in doubt; at some 500 pages, the format is very convenient for ready reference. It is a handy volume, not at all hard to wield and of pleasing proportions approaching the square, evoking the collector's end of the market. Clearly the tension between such compactness and the decision to cover all known European languages past and present, means that information on individual languages is selective. This being so, what has been put in, and what excluded?

To take the (to this reviewer) immediate example of French, the article describing that language, written by the editor, covers ten pages. The headings are 'Origins and earliest attestations'; 'Periodization'; 'Post-medieval literature'; 'Standardization' (over two pages, which seems right considering the degree of state interference the language has undergone over the centuries); 'Orthography'; 'Dialects'; 'Contacts with other languages'; 'Official status' (i.e. in countries other than France); 'French creoles'. This article, unsurprisingly in view of the author's standing, is written with authority. The same is true of other articles where the author or topic is familiar, and indeed the publisher's claim that the authors are 'an international team of scholars, many of them among the foremost authorities in their field', seems a remarkable stroke of modesty when that 'many of them' is taken into account.

The organization of articles covering other major languages (i.e. where the structure of the article is fairly elaborate) is similar to that covering French described above, although treatment has not been standardized throughout the book. The editor states in the preface that the scope of each article is 'very broadly [...] the external history and sociolinguistic aspects of the language[s] concerned'. Certainly a traditional 'history and structure' approach would have produced a massive volume, or series of such. A further indication of the intended coverage comes from the blurb, which states that the aim of the book is 'to provide surveys of the origins, historical development and, in the case of living languages, position of each language'. The term 'position' seems designed to cover the official status, present situation and geographical and social distribution of a language; in short, its vitality.

The decision not to standardize the organization of lengthy articles has led to some rather surprising, or at least noteworthy imbalances in the coverage afforded to individual languages. As noted above, a 'major' language such as French receives ten pages, while Cornish receives over four and Breton five-and-a-half. This observation is not intended as adverse criticism; one may suggest that the approach, cited above, that emphasizes external history and sociolinguistic aspects, will produce relative distortions of this kind (if we may so call them) because the history and sociolinguistics of minority languages are less well-known to the non-specialist reader, and may be less well documented too; this latter aspect may well mean that there is more scope for discussion and even controversy.

If one accepts the limits that the editor has set, it is plain that coverage is very thorough, including as it does sign languages, artificial languages; community languages (i.e. Panjabi, Urdu, etc. in Britain; Arabic in France); and articles on such romantically evocative items as Ogham and Linear B. This list does no more than scratch the surface of the tip of the iceberg of what is covered. Certainly in view of this inclusiveness, description of the structure of each language included would be beyond the scope of a relatively compact yet wide-ranging volume such as this. The linguistic description is therefore the obvious element to exclude, especially as concise structural sketches of at least the well-known European languages are so readily available (cf. Harris and Vincent 1980 for the Romance languages).

The discussions in the Preface are a typical instance of the thoroughness and most welcome old-fangled define-your-terms approach that characterize the book. The problems of the political-geographical definition of the 'continent' of Europe receive a concise but cogent treatment. In particular, the discussion of a plausible definition of where the eastern Europe-Asia border can be drawn resolves or least clarifies a question that, curiously enough, had been at the back of my mind for some while.

There is no index, but the cross-referencing system is clear and full, and the organization of subject-matter is sensible. Thus linguistically very diverse regions, such as the Caucasus, are grouped under 'Caucasian languages' and their relationship discussed with the languages as it were in proximity, while each language is also cross-referenced alphabetically. What is more, countries having more than one official language have their own article, so that the reader interested in the Belgian situation can turn to 'Belgium' rather than having to trawl through 'Flemish', etc.

Within the limits discussed above, this is a most valuable book. It is handsomely produced and well balanced. As noted above, the relatively large format means the book is not unduly thick, which makes for ease of handling. The typeface is attractive and sufficiently large, and the maps are good, although not copious: there is no map of Europe, which seems odd. But otherwise there is no evidence of the sort of skimping from which textbooks especially seem increasingly to suffer. This is of course reflected in the price: £75 for a book which by no means gives the impression of being a monumental tome. It will no doubt be largely a library purchase.


Harris, M. and N. Vincent (eds), 1980. The Romance languages. London: Croom Helm.

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