The Babel Message: A Love Letter to Language

A thrilling journey deep into the heart of language, from a rather unexpected starting point.

Keith Kahn-Harris is a man obsessed with something seemingly trivial – the warning message found inside Kinder Surprise eggs:

WARNING, read and keep: Toy not suitable for children under 3 years. Small parts might be swallowed or inhaled.

On a tiny sheet of paper, this message is translated into dozens of languages – the world boiled down to a multilingual essence. Inspired by this, the author asks: what makes ‘a language’? With the help of the international community of language geeks, he shows us what the message looks like in Ancient Sumerian, Zulu, Cornish, Klingon – and many more. Along the way he considers why Hungarian writing looks angry, why no one actually speaks Arabic, and the meaning of the heavy metal umlaut.

Overturning the Babel myth, he argues that the messy diversity of language shouldn’t be a source of conflict, but of collective wonder. This is a book about hope, a love letter to language.

Want to buy this book outside the UK? Check out the links on the publisher’s website.

Join in the adventure!

On the Additional Content pages you can find  a continually-updated list of translations and other material that I couldn’t fit into the book. Click here to see more and find out how you can help!

Book cover of The Babel Message: A Love Letter to Language

Formats available: Hardback, ebook, softback

First Published: November 4, 2021

Publisher: Icon Books

Themes: Language

Reviews for The Babel Message: A Love Letter to Language

Keith Kahn-Harris’s The Babel Message is a gloriously inflected record of an obsession. Mesmerised by the warning messages crammed on to a tiny square of paper inside every Kinder Surprise egg, he sets off in search of more. The tale he spins out of this quest manages to teach us a great deal about language – it’s protean energy and its slipperiness – but also makes us properly laugh (a rare Venn diagram, believe me). I doubt you ever expected (or wanted) to know what the Kinder Egg ‘Message’ was in Dothraki, Tok Pisin or Old Norse but Kahn-Harris’s fan-boy passion for the gorgeous surface of written language and his own skill in deploying it make the book a complete delight. I expect sales of Kinder Eggs to rocket.

John Mitchinson, author of The QI Book of General Ignorance

His polyglot quest reminded me of the guy reconstructing Don Quixote from scratch in Borges. If you enjoy that reference, you might well like the book. Now, excuse me while I eat the toy out of a Kinder Egg...

Alastair Beckett-King

The idea of someone writing a 300-page book solely on this
short text is captivating

A sociologist by training, Kahn-Harris pondered the polyglot warning, and started to daydream. How did Ferrero select these 37 languages? How did the languages differ in nuances, in alphabets? Where was Welsh? Maltese? Which other tongues missed the cut? Such queries inspired his sweet hymn to global translation, The Babel Message.

Gloriously eccentric – enlightening, funny and full of the human yearning to connect with others.

This is a wonderful book. A treasure trove of mind-expanding insights into language and humanity encased in a deliciously quirky, quixotic quest. I loved it. Warning: this will keep you reading.

Ann Morgan, author of 'Reading the World: Confessions of a Literary Explorer'

Quite simply, and quite ridiculously, one of the funniest and most illuminating books I have ever read. I thought I was obsessive, but Keith Kahn-Harris is playing a very different sport. He really has discovered the whole world in an egg.

Simon Garfield

I would warn everyone to read and keep this beautifully written book which is full of more surprises than all the Kinder eggs in the world. Taking the safety instructions from a Kinder Surprise, Keith explores the world of language - what it is, what it means and how we use it. Keith's precisely written prose celebrates the wonderful imprecision of language in all its glory. I'll never look at a Crazy Croco in the same way ever again.

James Ward, founder of The Boring Conference and author of 'Adventures in Stationery'

In this unlikely story of a quixotic translation, Keith Kahn-Harris illuminates how language-learning can hone our minds, strengthen our empathy, and lead us all to justice. Read this book — and immerse yourself in the raw pleasure of linguistic diversity.

Daniel Bögre Udell, Co-founder and Executive Director, Wikitongues

The Babel Message was such fun that I even went out and bought a Kinder Surprise Egg. It contained the warning note, along with a tiny plastic model of a ptero-dactyl. It’s testimony to the charm of this book that I immediately started wondering how you’d say pterodactyl in Old Norse.

Kahn-Harris writes clearly and entertainingly, with a gentle, self-deprecating humour. The book is also unexpectedly profound. On the face of it, The Babel Message is a book about the Kinder Surprise egg, but it isn’t really about that at all. It is about the at times bewildering practicalities of language, its messiness and its ideals. It is about how something as simple as a chocolate egg can enclose one of humanity’s greatest foundational myths – and that is perhaps the biggest surprise of all.

This is a book written with passion and humanity.

Language lovers unite: this book will blow your mind.

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