Mother Tongues; Travels through Tribal Europe, with Helena Drysdale

Undoubtedly one of this country’s finest travel writers. She has written about Madagascar, China & Tibet, Romania, and New Zealand. She’ll be talking to us about her prize-winning book, Mother Tongues, a journey through the forgotten languages and peoples of Europe.


Mother Tongues

Behind the bland homogeneity of modern Europe seethe the separatist movements of the peoples – or tribes - whose borders don’t coincide with those of any nation state, and whose language is different too.

Who are the Saami, Ladin, and Frisians? Why are the Basques and Corsicans so angry, and the Vlachs so keen to lie low? In her book Mother Tongues, Helena Drysdale explores Europe’s marginalia, some speaking languages on the brink of extinction.

During a twenty-month odyssey with her husband and two infant daughters, Helena travelled 26,000 miles – equivalent to the circumference of the globe – exploring the past and future for Europe’s endangered minorities. This is a story of history, languages and human rights, of travel to Europe’s wildest frontiers – and of living with two tiny children in a space the size of a garden shed.

Their journey took them to the heart of tribal Europe: to the Frisian Islands, Samiland, the Basque country; to Macedonia, Corsica and Provence. Curious and sympathetic, Drysdale sought out Europe’s indigenous tribes and took stock of their place in our modern world, analysing the vital link between language and identity and capturing beautifully many of the voices and cultures that are already fading away.


Helena Drysdale

Helena’s Mother Tongues was Book of the Year in The Independent, The Times, the Irish Times and The Sunday Times. Her other books include Strangerland; a family at war_ (Book of the Year in the Sunday Times and Spectator), Looking for George; love and death in Romania, (shortlisted for the Esquire/Waterstones Non-Fiction award and the PEN/JR Ackerley Award for Autobiography); Dancing with the Dead, a journey through Zanzibar and Madagascar, which became an award-winning Granada/WNET TV documentary; and Alone through China and Tibet. Her latest book, Tibet: A Brief History, was published in April. She has appeared on innumerable radio programmes and written for most British publications.


REVIEWS of Mother Tongues

A hugely ambitious project, a mix of anthropology, history, politics and travelogue, but Drysdale brings it off brilliantly. -- Sunday Times

It is a great subject, and she does it more than justice in this unpretentious, well-written, sad and funny book. -- Literary Review

Mother Tongues is humane and scholarly, and wonderfully interwoven with the stress of child-care at very close quarters. -- Independent on Sunday

My book of the year...Drysdale’s writing is simultaneously engrossing, descriptive and diverting. She is the best of travelling companions. -- The Times

Rich in anecdote and linguistic analysis, in expert reportage and insight...Drysdale’s powers of description are as fresh as ever. -- Evening Standard

2012Martin Keeley