Cover Image: The Babel Message

The Babel Message

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date:

Member Reviews

Funny, clever and really intriguing, I was thinking about it long after I finished reading. Would highly recommend this to anyone who likes literary thrillers.
Was this review helpful?
This is a book about the warning message inside a Kinder egg. The little slip of paper that says to be careful with the small parts and young children. The whole book riffs on that message. It is brilliant and I loved it. The book takes off from the variety of languages shown on the leaflet into how language is created, how language adapts, how each language deals with "warnings". It looks at differences and similarities, roots of language, how to create one (Klingon or Tolkien’s in middle earth).

The book and the concept might sound boring, but they are anything but. This is a fascinating exploration of the whole idea of language, of warnings, of who gets to choose and the impact of those choices. Mr Kahn-Harris is a nerd of the highest order and I salute him. I salute him for taking scholarship of this level and making it accessible to ordinary people by framing it with a simple idea.

This would be a great gift for any person interested in language or linguistics and it’s totally suitable for beginners.

I was given a copy of this book by Netgalley
Was this review helpful?
This is a book about the warning label inside a piece of candy. No, really. Kahn-Harris has based this book on the multilingual warning messages found inside that most dangerous forbidden treat, the Kinder Surprise Egg*. It became a project of the author’s around 2017 and by 2020 he had enough material for a whole book. I feel I ought to mention that as a United States citizen born in 1989, I have never owned, opened, or consumed a Kinder Surprise Egg, even when traveling abroad, which adds an extra layer of intrigue for me.

Kahn-Harris’s love of languages he doesn’t understand is highly relatable (at least to this reader), as is his approach to acquisition and the faint sadness he expresses that, as a native English-speaker, he is unlikely to achieve true fluency in any language other than English because there are just not enough opportunities to use non-English languages, and that English speakers, particularly monolingual ones, have a distinct degree of privilege. The opening caveat about the likelihood of errors in languages the author does not speak natively is a good introduction to the book to follow, which is written by a sociologist who really enjoys language, rather than a linguist, a fact which should be kept in mind throughout the reading process.

It is a very self-indulgent work of the sort that only an academic or a seriously bored YouTuber doing a deepdive might undertake, and as such it is full of the author’s personal thoughts and feelings alongside the more useful and (generally) more interesting facts about the capital-M Message. Some of these can feel more than a little twee, but there is a sense of wonder running throughout which prevents Kahn-Harris’s writing from becoming truly obnoxious, even when it takes on a faintly (or more than faintly) sardonic tone. It is hard to stay annoyed at someone who seems so positively enthralled by something so harmless (unless you are with the FDA, in which case your official stance must be that Kinder Surprise Eggs are Very, Very, Dangerous and Verboten).

The book actually covers a great deal under the guise of examining a warning message. It discusses how languages unite and divide people, and how people unite and divide languages, the difference between written and spoken language, the politics of selecting which languages to represent on an international warning label, the idea of code switching or changing register (which is when a person changes how they speak based on their circumstances). I particularly enjoyed the breakdown of how the Message might vary from its written form to being announced in a supermarket down to how the author might deliver it to a family member who’s just purchased a Kinder Surprise Egg for their under-three. It was also pleasing to me to read translations into ancient and endangered languages, and a true delight to see it translated into various conlangs (though the Kahn-Harris has mistakenly titled David Peterson’s book on conlangs as The Art of Language Creation rather than The Art of Language Invention, which I only know because I’ve read it and may be corrected in the finished copy) and Kahn-Harris’s efforts at invention his own conlang.

As an aside, the use of QR codes to link to videos of folks signing the Message was, I feel, a fairly inspired choice, though also evidence of the author’s privilege: it assumes the reader owns a smartphone, whereas a simple URL could be copied and entered into a web browser at the local library.

Personally, it took me a very long time to finish this book because it just did not hold my attention for long stretches of reading, though other readers’ mileage may vary. I did genuinely enjoy this book, and though I doubt I'll care to reread it, I wish very much that I knew other people who shared my dilettante-ish linguistic leanings because I think for those people, this would be a great read.
Was this review helpful?
What a ride. I expected a fun and silly little book that spoke to the dormant language nerd in my soul. Instead I was treated to a book that not only spoke to the language nerd in my soul, but also was able to educate me in a friendly and accessible way. Not afraid to shy away from politics, religion, colonialism and more Keith Kahn-Harris touched on all manner of subjects and systems of belief surround language. What makes a language, can you make your own, how much language is enough language? Great for anyone who wants to learn a little something about somewhere they know nothing about.

Caution: will make you want to eat Kinder Surprise Eggs.
Was this review helpful?
The original concept of examining the text in all the languages which appear in the warning notice is intriguing. I was interested to see how far the concept of dissecting it as a modern day Rosetta Stone could be run. I am afraid that I lost patience and could not get beyond half way. I have not written it off entirely and think I will try again when I feel stronger!
Was this review helpful?
We love this book.
A read it with a friend and we both agreed that the whole concept of the book was 'mad' but brilliant. 
The discussions of language origins and meanings were fascinating and informative. 
Interesting also how alphabets dissolve and then rearrange, letters coming in and out of use as do words.
A book for writers all. Authors read and learn. The vocabulary will give you richness to your text as will the understanding of language origins and development.
Was this review helpful?
this is a book about language, all based around the warning message inside kinder eggs and it's as interesting as that sounds. it covers a lot of different topics surrounding language all around the world, the different politics, the dying languages, how the world is changing

i really enjoyed it! anyone who enjoys languages in any way will love this quirky lil book
Was this review helpful?
Full disclosure: I have an elderly first degree in psychology and linguistics and a even older a-level in sociology so I didn’t approach this title without previous knowledge in the field. I’m not sure where the audience for this title lies.  The premise is quite niche; it seems too technical for a general reader and too frivolous for academics.  I found the middle sections most interesting but other parts did remind me why this level of analysis is no longer part of my life.
Was this review helpful?
The warning message inside a kinder egg, not exactly high literature but it forms the basis for this exploration of language.  Looking at which languages are included and which are not, Kahn-Harris considers the important of society and the connections between languages.  His etymology considers the families of language and the subtle differences between them and how this relates to history and politics.  He also explores the obscure languages of the world, either those where kinder eggs may never be seen, eg. languages that have no words to translate the message, or those that are so obscure they are only spoken by a handful of people.  He also considers 'new' languages, ones that are being added to all the time eg. Hebrew, and those that are purely fictional eg Klingon, Dothraki.  All in all this book takes a preposterous premise and produces something magical.
Was this review helpful?
I immediately wanted to read this, having heard the original Boring Talk and being fascinated! It’s a much deeper dive into the subject, brilliantly written
Was this review helpful?
I found this book quite fascinating, for a number of reasons. First, I’m Italian and I can enjoy a bit of national pride in finding an Italian brand like Ferrero being under the spot like this; also, Kinder Surprise Egg is a major part of my childhood as well.
Second, my first language is Italian, I’m fluent in English and I’ve studied Portuguese and German as well. I can totally understand Kahn-Harris’s enthusiasm when it comes to languages other than your own.

Kahn-Harris is on a mission to investigate all the possible translations of the Message, the leaflet contained in the capsule of every Kinder Surprised Egg produced by Ferrero.

I enjoyed every bit of the linguistic journey offered by this book, including the self-criticism and self-doubt on the way the author was approaching some specific languages and tongues, considering the colonialist past that permeates the British history.
Another fascinating chapter is the one related to the man-made languages such as Esperanto and Klingon, and the subsequent attempt by the author to come up with his very own, still unnamed, language to translate the Message.

A language is never just a language, it’s culture, it’s society, it’s politics. No one is immune to the power a languages has over its speakers and non-speakers.

For every language enthusiast out there – Iltigõš zānigõmo! You’ll understand later.
Was this review helpful?
A wildly unique love letter to language which will leave me unable to look at Kinder eggs in the same way. 

This is about the fascinating overlap and differences of languages, written from an interesting perspective. 

I really enjoyed it.
Was this review helpful?
This was a fascinating book, starting with the warning message in a Kinder surprise egg and branching off into a history of languages and cultures. I have to admit though that, in the end,  I felt a bit overwhelmed by all the information and quite how many rabbit holes the author went down during his research. There is definitely a really good shorter book hidden in here and I feel that, maybe like the Kinder egg, the essence would be better with less wrapping.
Thank you to netgalley and Icon books for an advance copy of this book
Was this review helpful?
I first came across the ‘boringness’ of Kinder Egg warning labels in Dr Kahn-Harris’s talk on the subject for BBC Boring Talks - I was therefore delighted to find that he expands upon this definitely-not-boring niche in this book. There are gems here for all language-lovers. It’s well-researched, but not overly academic. I’ll never look at a Kinder Egg in quite the same way again!
Was this review helpful?
This book is a roller coaster compendium of language as an index to the many mysterious ways in which the world moves. Kahn-Harris has conducted extensive research on how the  Kinder egg warning message translates across the linguistic universe. This basic premise throws up a spectrum of histories, ideologies and philosophies that are embedded in the way that peoples speak and write. The book is entertaining, very well-informed  and demonstrates the beauty of many scripts that lie outside the Western framework.  There is a smaller less dense book struggling to get out of this encyclopaedic survey and I would have been happy with that.  
A great achievement.
Was this review helpful?
There are a lot of languages. And languages don't easily map on to each other. I studied some ideas around the intersection of language and ideas as a student, and there are lots of fascinating roads and cul de sacs to follow when you start thinking about language and translation. As an avid film viewer I know that what I am seeing on the subtitles is often a diluted flavour of the dialogue in the original, and that my experience will be very different to that of a native speaker.

All this and more, much more, is wrapped up in The Babel Message - in what initially (and apologetically) comes across as a slightly gimmicky book about the warning message that you get in a Kinder Egg to be careful as small children can choke on the parts. The message has over thirty translations on it, and even to someone who isn't a linguist, how the messages are structured and capitalised suggest there is more than a passing difference between them. And so Kahn-Hariis uses this Ferrero-Rocher Rosetta Stone to talk about translation, the joys of language and - the slightly more subjective perhaps - joys of reading or viewing a language you don't understand. There is a textural aspect to the textual joys, and he manages to dodge some of the more essentialist issues around appreciating different roman and non-roman scripts, and goes off and gets ample translations which are not on the paper. The first half of The Babel Message, where he describes this joy of language is terrific, a very accessible but also clever whistle-stop tour of the philosophy of language and linguistics, and how language develops.

Kahn-Harris has a project though, as is the way in this kind of book, and he heads off to get the message translated as much as possible into as many languages as possible. There are interesting diversions here, is he just getting translations for performative purposes, people refuse to get it translated into African American slang dialect for this reason. But pretty much this part of the book is a couple of paragraphs about the language, any notable aspects and then the script - which it is down to the reader to take on trust and appreciate as visual art sometimes. And as we slowly traverse the world this gets very samey. And as we move into invented languages - beyond some interesting points about invented languages - it continues. And then he invents his own language... There is a fascinating, tight and amusingly radical book hidden in The Babel Message, but unfortunately the structure and eventual journey the book took let this first half down for me, the exhausting second half sucked much of that joy from it. However that first half is so very good that I still highly recommend the book, just be willing to take the second half a little quicker if it isn't working for you.
Was this review helpful?
Despite the title suggesting either bad science fiction or worse woo, this is undoubtedly the best book I have ever read or ever expect to read about the multilingual warning messages inside Kinder Surprise Eggs. Kahn-Harris does branch out just a little from that starting point, of course – starting with minor details of translation, like how some versions of the Message are in capitals while others are not, and only seven of the 34 versions on the Manuscript* specify 3 as the age below which the toy presents a danger. And why that particular selection of languages? Some of this I saw on his inaugural expedition into this territory, back at the 2017 Boring Conference – ah, those heady days before the whole world was boring! And already it was interesting stuff for anyone curious about translation, about the politics of multilingual messaging, about the ignored structures underpinning the world. But working over a few hundred pages, rather than 20 minutes or so, some of the wider implications can be teased out. The idea of being a 'language fan', for instance – which is to say, enjoying the look and the sound of languages you don't know – and, following on from that, getting the Message translated into still more languages. As a result of which, if nothing else, this book serves as a wonderful introduction to some beautiful scripts. I was already a big fan of the Georgian and Korean alphabets, but was not familiar with Amharic and Tibetan, both equally evocative - or Tifinagh, in which Amazigh (or Berber) languages are written, and which to these Anglo eyes looks like a classic science fiction alphabet**. And it's important to remember that Anglo eyes bit – particularly after getting embroiled in controversy with a translation of the Message into African-American Vernacular English, as a result of which he became more sensitive to the ways in which his project could be construed as condescending or colonialist, Kahn-Harris is keenly alert to the political implications of language, and what is or is not considered one. He references, but doesn't entirely agree with, the old line about a dialect with an army – but one of the most interesting bits is the way that even when a dialect does become enshrined as a language, that often serves only to marginalise other forms of the same dialect. Or, alternately, to enshrine minor differences of usage as something far more concrete than they need be: I was particularly gratified to learn of the 2017 'Declaration on a Common Language', in which intellectuals from four former Yugoslav countries confirmed that as far as they were concerned Serbo-Croatian should still be regarded as one tongue, a position I have long supported but a) from a considerably less solid base and b) principally to torment a friend with Serb heritage. And if you think that's niche, you should have seen my grin at learning some versions of the Manuscript feature a combined Romanian/Moldovan message badged RO-MO.

That's the wonderful thing about the book; it can take in so many modes. The tone is fully aware of the ostensible silliness of the project, but never lapses into the snide, wacky, or trendy vicar. At the same time, it can be serious and thoughtful where necessary, without ever falling into the po-faced or green ink. The result being that when Kahn-Harris says something like "As with the Bible or the works of Homer, we will never achieve full knowledge. Does this matter, though?", the comparison seems charmingly audacious, instead of just daft. He can be straightforwardly and usefully informative: I'm now a lot clearer on the extent to which there are, and aren't, languages called Chinese and Arabic. He can call up outrage on the reader's part – it may not be the country's biggest problem, but is still appalling that the Haitian government routinely violates its own constitution by not using Kreyòl. Or equally, a gentle melancholy for all the things which time and homogenisation have taken from the world – "To write the Message in Occitan is, perhaps, to dream of lost glories". There are times when natural languages can seem comical – the Channel Islands, with four different languages derived from Norman French, when even combined they'd be distinctly short of speakers; Abkhazian, a debatable language for a disputed state, written in modified Cyrillic despite having 50+ consonants and only two vowels. But these are as nothing compared to the forays into that reliable monument to hubris, deliberately constructed languages. Yes, we get the message in Esperanto, but the real winner is Lojban, conceived as a wholly logical language (or rather, a schismatic branch from a prior language conceived as such, which is already gold). I've known it as bathetic since I first learned it existed, but it still excels itself here, with three very different versions even of the Message's simple instructions. But just when I thought that had to be the book's big punchline, Kahn-Harris decides to create a language of his own, just to translate the Message into it. And while this is not only a comedy book, that chapter had me properly doubled up with laughter at the linguistic misadventures. All in all, a volume which deserves to be, though it never will be, as widespread as its inspiration.

*The capitals are partly a joke, of course, and partly a useful shorthand. But when we get the brief comparison of a rival product – "This has no manuscript (it cannot be a Manuscript) but it does have a message (it cannot be a Message) in English" – I did get the tiniest flashback to The Napoleon Of Notting Hill, and remember how easily these things can become less and less of a joke. Look, I know that on the list of likely future catastrophes, a holy war between enemy sects devoted to confectionery warning messages is not high on the list, but then two years ago nor was a world-stopping pangolin plague, and it certainly wouldn't be any more absurd than the whole 'filioque' debacle.
**All of which, incidentally, my Kindle app could handle just fine, though eventually I had to download the Netgalley ARC in another format because Kindle was coming a cropper with Sumerian and, of all things, emojis.
Was this review helpful?
Probably the deepest literary dive of its kind ever written, “The Babel Message” is a celebration of the esoteric multilingualism of the warning message inside Kinder Surprise Eggs. 
Yes, you read that right. 
There are 37 languages represented on the piece of paper inside the popular toy-concealing treat, warning purchasers not to give the toy to children under three years old in case they swallow any of the small parts. On the current one anyway; the Message, which is written on the Manuscript (Kahn-Harris’ own funny yet fitting capitalisation) has changed many times and incorporated new languages over the years. The arcane knowledge author Keith Kahn-Harris uncovers includes that there exist ardent collectors of Kinder Egg toys, warning slips and even the foil wrapper (which take a bit of skill to get off neatly) but like many collectors, some of them were intensely secretive about their collections. 
This immensely enjoyable book is also a study of language, how it separates but also connects us. Language lovers will be in their element reading this book. There is an depth look at the different variants within languages in relation to which version was chosen to be on the message. This usually because of political reasons so there are a few history lessons along the way. 
The author approached friends, colleagues, experts and even strangers over the internet to help him translate the Message into as many languages as possible. The subsequent new translations are included in the book in all their glory with explanatory notes, including Zulu, Afrikaans and Letzeburgesch, the language of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. And, yes, even Esperanto gets its moment in the chapter on constructed languages or “conlangs”. There is also a dalliance with regional “slang” - the Message in Scots and the Stoke-on-Trent “Potteries” dialect will have you laughing out loud. There are also “artlangs”, languages created for sci-fi franchises such as Klingon. An appendix is included which goes deeper still into the very fabric of the Message and Manuscript, and an index of languages. Kahn-Harris also attempts to create his own language to use for the Message. 
“The Babel Message” is, to quote the author, a “celebration of linguistic diversity” and is one of those delightfully quirky books that make you say to yourself “I can’t believe someone actually wrote this”, while secretly thinking it’s the best book you’ve read in ages. And it is. Eminently (re)readable, “The Babel Message” is one of the funniest yet most serious, preposterous yet erudite books you’ll read all year. 

I am grateful to Icon Books and NetGalley for offering me an advanced copy on this book.
Was this review helpful?
I would describe this book as a love letter to the warning message inside a kinder egg, as that's basically what this book is about. It's interesting seeing the written form of the similar message in all these languages, and the meaning of said words, however it just left me craving a kinder egg with all the talk of them. I think Ferraro missed a trick by not sponsoring this book, and on that note I'm now off to the shops for a kinder egg.
Was this review helpful?