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April 24, 2001

  Linguistically Challenged


In last Thursday's column I added a footnote with a link to a German website. In my usual helpful way, I added: "If you can't read German, here is the relevant passage in translation …" A reader emailed back with words of scorn.

Read German, you say? You forget that I am an American. The Germans will damn well speak English, if they want to be understood … We neither have the time, nor see the need, to learn languages that are destined to go the way of Latin and Sanskrit. We have people to do that for us, should the need arise …

I suspect this is a widespread attitude, though perhaps not many people would express it so bluntly. Americans, and I think Anglo-Saxon cultures generally, are terrible linguists, and refuse to be embarrassed about it. In the old French Foreign Legion it used to be said that the English and American recruits were the last to get promoted to noncom, because they just couldn't master the French words of command.

This warms my heart, for I am a hopeless linguist myself. The history of my encounters with other people's languages is a chronicle of failure.

I attended a very good secondary school in England, where everyone had to do four years of Latin and four years of a modern language. I switched modern languages, ending up with a year of French and three of German. I had thus been exposed to three foreign languages by the time I got to college, one dead and two living (if you consider the French to be alive). There I did a year of Russian to fulfill a requirement, and also because I was a bit of a lefty. "Breathes there the man with sould so dead / He was not, in his twenties, Red?" as Sir Walter Scott wondered.

After college, and some brief, unsuccessful attempts at working for a living (a thing I have never gotten the hang of) I took off on my travels, washing up first in Hong Kong. There I had to tackle Cantonese, a language with seven tones and minute variations of vowel length that are (a) undetectable if you don't have two Cantonese grandmothers, and (b) absolutely crucial to a word's meaning:  gai is "chicken", but gaai, in the same tone, is "street."  Oy oy oy!  (Which, by the way, means "Love, love, love" in Cantonese — cue the Beatles.) The script was a variant of ideographic Chinese; you had to memorize five or six thousand squiggles if you wanted to read a newspaper.

After that came Thailand, whose language has only five tones and — hallelujah! — an alphabetic script … except that they do not punctuate, nor even leave spaces between words, and the vowel can appear above its consonant, or below it, or to its left, or its right, or on both sides at once.

Then to mainland China and Mandarin, phonetically a sort of stripped-down racing version of Cantonese, but freighted with the same vast stock of idioms and allusions accumulated over four thousand years of history and literature. Ask a Chinese manager how many people he needs to do a job and he's likely to reply: "Han Xin commands the troops." That means "the more, the better", the reply given by Han Xin, a general of the 3rd century b.c., when his emperor asked him how many soldiers would be required to accomplish a certain objective. Ask the manager how old he is and he might reply er li, which means "I stood still," a reference to a famous remark by Confucius: "At twenty I was hungry for knowledge, at thirty I stood still …"

That's seven foreign languages I've assaulted at various times, with various degrees of vigor. I don't think I left much of a bruise on any of them. My Latin is, well, dead. From time to time, just because I like the sound of the old boy's voice, I take down my Loeb Horace and mutter an Ode to myself … but with one eye on the parallel text to remind me what it means, a thing I can no longer figure out unaided.

French is utterly gone, and good riddance. Orwell says somewhere, correctly, that every true-born Englishman thinks it effeminate to speak good French. When French TV stations want to raise an easy laugh, they replay British Prime Minister Edward Heath's speech on our 1973 entry into the European Community: "Set oon mow-mont istoreek …"

German I still have some shreds of, and can struggle through a written text with a dictionary to hand, but what the eyes can do, the ears cannot:  if addressed in German, I run for the Ausgang. Of Russian I remember only the alphabet — the pre-Revolutionary one, for some reason — and some random lines of poetry. (It's true, Russian poetry is very beautiful.) Though I am pleased to recall that just knowing the alphabet got me two thousand dollars' worth of work once.

My Cantonese got swamped by Mandarin, and though I can exchange brief pleasantries with visitors from Hong Kong, we drop into English for any matters of substance. The only thing I remember from Thai is my Bangkok address (Thanon Kroongkasem bai tinai krap?) — I was terrified of getting lost, so those were the first words I memorized. With languages, the first thing to come is the last to go. I am still pitch-perfect on the first complete sentence I ever learned to say in Cantonese:  Ngo gok-dak hou m-syu-fuk — "I don't feel very well."

My Mandarin is kept alive, just barely, by my wife, a Mandarin-speaker. When we first got married we made a rule that on Tuesdays we would speak only Chinese. That lasted about a month. There was always something I wanted to say that I was too impatient to put into Chinese first, or else there was something Rosie wanted to say that she didn't want to have to repeat three times at decreasing velocity until I'd figured it out. We are now an English-speaking household unless there are Chinese visitors, or when we want to browbeat the kids into practicing their Chinese. Like most bookish people, I can read and write better than I speak and comprehend, but not much better. (The great Sinologist Arthur Waley, who made those beautiful translations of ancient and medieval Chinese poetry, could not understand the spoken language at all.)

I am thus a linguistic failure, and, in true Anglo-Saxon fashion, totally insouciant about it. Like many of the Anglo-Saxon virtues, though, I note that this one seems to have suffered some erosion. I keep meeting people who are proud of their facility with some foreign language. This strikes me as gross bad manners, and in any case I take it with a grain of salt. Linguistic ability is like sexual prowess:  much more boasted of than actually possessed. (Though I suppose it is less troublesome to verify.)

A friend recently lowered himself several points in my esteem by addressing his gardener in what sounded like fluent Spanish. Pshaw. Someone told me many years ago that you need memorize only one sentence in Spanish, which I duly memorized:  ¡Plugiera a Dios que fuera así! — "Would to God it were so!" This is an acceptable response to almost anything anyone might say to you, and has the additional advantage of including a subjunctive, so that you sound like an educated person.

We English-speaking peoples should keep hold of the essential fact about foreign languages: They exist to make us laugh. It is considered exquisitely polite in Thai for a gentleman to end every spoken sentence with the otherwise-meaningless syllable krap. (The equivalent for ladies is ka.) Sawat-di will do for a greeting, but Sawat-di krap is much classier. "Eyebrows on fire" say the Chinese when they're in a tearing hurry, and one common Chinese term for "homosexual" is "chicken-rapist" (derived from the position, not from the object of desire). The Cantonese word for "duck" (the creature) is ngaap.

Latin has been making schoolboys snicker since the Middle Ages. As late as the 1970s, British TV ran a sitcom, Up Pompeii, about a Roman family whose elderly patriarch bore the name Ludicrus Sextus.

German has a word for the hollow space behind your knee:  kniebeuge, pronounced "k-nee-boy-geh." German is, in fact, a language rich in hilarity, difficult to speak for long without giggling. The German for "constipated" is verstopft; "rhinitis" is Nasenschleimheit, literally "nose-sliminess."** An excursion is of course an Ausfahrt, while auto exhaust is Auspuff. I even, for reasons I cannot explain, find the German word for "elbow" difficult to utter with a straight face:  Ellenbogen. (The large bone of the forearm is the Ellenbogenknochen. See what I mean?)

The sound and length of German names is a staple of British comedy:  recall Monty Python's interview with that strangely neglected composer Johann Gambolputty de von Ausfern-schplendenschlitter-crasscrenbon-frieddiggerdingledangledongledungle-burstein von Knackerthrasher-appelbanger-horowitz-ticolensic-granderknottyspelltinkel-grandlichgrumblemeyerspelterwasser-kurstlich-himbleeisenbahnwagen- gutenabend-bitte-ein-nürnburger-bratwurstel-gernspurten-mitzweimache-luberhundsfut-gumberaberschönedanker-kalbsfleischmittelraucher von Hautkopft of Ulm. And of course there that weird business of the verb at the end of the sentence putting is.

What's that? Oh, yes, this is NRO. I'm supposed to make some kind of political point. Er, I don't think there is one, though I occasionally find myself surprised that the teaching of foreign languages in American schools hasn't been more politicized than it has. (Outside the strange business of "bilingual education," which means, if I have been informed correctly, that immigrant Cambodian kids in Los Angeles schools are hustled off to be taught in Spanish.)

We all know how morally superior the Third World is to the corrupt, exploiting, polluting, capitalist West. So why are our schools still teaching French, German and Spanish? Ice People languages! Why not Guaraní, Malayalam or Twi? There is probably a lobby for this idea out there somewhere, and it probably gets a fat grant from the federal government.

Good luck to them. Who cares? Except for those who go to live abroad, every honest American forgets his school languages anyway. Learning a foreign language is not only a gruelling chore, it is also, for most of us, ultimately pointless. Why do we still have to bother? Can't our clever machines do this for us by now? ¡Plugiera a Dios que fuera así!


**[I added the following footnote to a later column.].

In my April 24th column, "Linguistically Challenged", I proved that I am, indeed, linguistically challenged by asserting that the German word for "rhinitis" is Nasenschleimheit (lit. "nose-sliminess"). This is, of course, quite wrong, as a kind reader pointed out to me. The correct word is Nasenschleimhautentzündung (lit. "nose-slime-membrane-detonation"). I apologize for my gross and obvious error, and for my ill-considered implication that there is anything the least bit comical to be found in the grave, solemn and elegant German language.