Wednesday, 24 February 2016

The Lingua Franca

More and more foreign words are being imported into English.  
But what would George Orwell think about it?  And Winston Churchill, the great advocate for the use of plain English?

The stance of these two guardians of Britain’s national identity came to mind recently.   
The occasion arose when a friend told me about his linguistic experience on a business trip to Germany.   
In making a presentation to clients he apologized for being, as he put it, “unable to speak a word of German.”
My immediate reaction was to argue that this is manifestly untrue.  Despite the modest protestation, English speakers know and use more Germanic terms than they think.
Examples from everyday speech include kindergarten, to keep stumm (mute, quiet), uber (as in uber cool or uber taxis), heist (as in the Hatton Garden jewellery robbery by pensioners in central London), kitsch (low brow design, tackiness), zeitgeist (the spirit or fashion of the time), schadenfreude (enjoying hearing about the troubles of others), doppelganger (a lookalike or double), and strudel (a scrumptious Viennese pastry).

Beyond these, who isn’t aware of proper German words that fall casually off the English tongue nowadays?  Words like like autobahn, fraulein, danke, nein, achtung and auf wiedersehen pet are second nature.  And never mind such useful phrases as vorsprung durch technik, das auto and Bayern Munich.

A recent and humorous book on the topic of linguistics examines fifty of Europe’s languages and dialects.[i]   

The single Dutch author says that there are “thousands” of German loanwords in English.  His list of unexpected ones includes noodle, abseil, seminar and rucksack.  
More obvious are blitz, quartz, and (how could I have missed it) pretzel.

It’s not just near neighbours whose vocabulary invades or enriches (depending on your point of view) the Queen’s English.  There may be colonial reasons for another example, but India has given us some of our most poetic and unexpected words.   
Shampoo is an Indian word.  So too are disparate popular nouns such as bungalow, pyjamas, gymkhana, veranda, huggermugger, dungarees, and tiffin[ii].

The French linguist Michel Thomas claims that something like 40% of English words originate from France.  This influence apparently dates back to the Norman conquest of England.  
It’s not just obvious words like cuisine, decor, repartee, patois, formidable, renaissance, au fait, avant-garde, esprit de corps, deja vu, bon vivant which are commonly used in English.   
There are also other lesser known nouns and adjectives that we owe to France.  These include table, police, publicity, porter, and comfortable.  Quelle surprise.

When the author of the Lingo book[iii] considers French, he says that it 

“is second only to Latin as a donor of loanwords to the English language.  It has given thousands ranging from the workaday air and place to the grander maitre d’ and je ne sais quoi.”

This sounds like a non sequitur, but the latter French phrase brings to mind one particular event from my days of taking part in contrasting types of competition to do with speaking in public.   
One was debating, which is a team event involving robust rebuttal of opponents’ arguments.  The other is the solo art of public speaking requiring the speaker to make a self-contained oration on a set topic selected from a limited range of options.  
On one occasion, my chosen topic was “That je ne sais quoi.”

Initial panic rapidly evaporated, to be replaced by inspiration.  A muse descended and I decided to adopt a reductio ad absurdum.   
This approach involved lacing the 5 minute opus minor with almost every French word that is commonly used in English and which I could extract from my cranial hard drive.   
Stringing them together into a coherent masterpiece was the tricky part.   

Although I didn’t win first prize, I enjoyed the discipline of being forced to be creative in self-imposed restrictive circumstances, and with no need for subtitles.

A propos the lingua franca, a few years ago someone sent me a list of so-called Bushisms. This may have been in or around the time of the American invasion of Iraq.  
American citizens were protesting against France because of its refusal to support the US military action.  Apparently some protesters even went so far as to boycott French fries.   
The list of quotations consisted of comments attributed to the then President George W Bush.  One was

“The problem with the French is that they don’t have a word for entrepreneur.”

Tempting as it is, this is not the place to discuss the “awesome” Americanisation of the English language.  Instead I return to George Orwell.  
His criticism of falling standards in spoken and written English comes across, at least in part, as a reaction to the politics of the era.  
In one hard-hitting essay,[iv] he protests that

“modern English is full of bad habits...
“the present political chaos is connected with the decay of the language, and ... one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end...”

What an interesting idea to suggest that while words have been used to the detriment of mankind, restoring good use of language can help to improve life in the aftermath of war - as in peace-building.  And words are free, even today.
When the world again abounds with political chaos, with wars raging and refugees fleeing, Orwell’s advice continues to have relevance.   

Perhaps this debate about importing foreign words can apply as a metaphor for human migration.  
If not a metaphor, then the importing of words from one language to another could be considered as analogous to the migration of people across national borders.

Plain English, along with simple images, can articulate eloquently and emotionally the need for international action to mitigate the visceral circumstances and resolve the plight of displaced people.

Foreign words have been seamlessly integrated into English for a long time. In the same way, English words are being exported into European languages - le weekend in French and il weekend is the Italian translation. 
And likewise, following the European Union's philosophy of promoting diversity, opportunity and free movement of labour between its 28 member nations, its citizens work in large numbers in each others countries. Mutual benefit.

Linguistically speaking, it is instructive to remind ourselves of comments made by our literary predecessors.  Among a litany of criticism Orwell argued that

“Foreign words and expressions such as cul de sac, ancient regime, deus ex machina, status quo, gleichschaltung are used to give an air of culture and elegance....there is no real need for any of the hundreds of foreign phrases now current in the English language.  Bad writers, and especially scientific, political and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones.  Unnecessary ones like expedite, ameliorate, predict, extraneous, clandestine....and hundreds of others constantly gain ground from their Anglo-Saxon numbers....”

Seventy years on, and judging from the examples that English has imported from Germany India and France, this process appears to have gained momentum - or ground, as Orwell would prefer.

It is, however, difficult to resist the intellectuality and charm of these earlier custodians of our language.   
Winston Churchill used language in the style as Orwell advocated[v].  His first speech in the House of Commons as Prime Minister included the spine-tingling line 

“I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”

Churchill’s ability to express himself in his historical memoirs and speeches illustrates the power of short Anglo-Saxon words and plain English.  
It’s worth remembering that, ipso facto, this is why he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1953.

[i]Gaston Dorren  “Lingo: a language spotter’s guide to Europe” paperback edition published on 28 Jan 2016 Profile Books.
[ii] BBC report 12 July 2012
[iii]Gaston Dorren  “Lingo: a language spotter’s guide to Europe”
[iv]“Politics and the English Language” 1946 George Orwell