Tag Archives: language

Languages

Before leaving India in the late eighties, I could speak a bit of Hindi as my third language. English was the second language, and Malayalam my mother tongue. I wasn’t fluent in Hindi by any stretch of imagination, but I could speak it well enough to get rid of a door-to-door salesman, for instance.

This is exactly what my father (a confirmed Hindi-phobe) asked me to do during one of my visits home when a persistent, Hindi-speaking sari salesman was hovering over our front porch. By that time, I had spent over six years in the US (and considered my English very good) and a couple of years in France (enough to know that “very good English” was no big deal). So to get rid of the sari-wala, I started to talk to him in Hindi, and the strangest thing happened — it was all French that was coming out. Not my mother tongue, not my second or third language, but French! In short, there was very confused sari salesman roaming the streets that day.

True, there is some similarity between Hindi and French, for instance, in the sounds of interrogative words, and the silly masculine-feminine genders of neutral objects. But I don’t think that was what was causing the outpouring of Frenchness. It felt as though French had replaced Hindi in my brain. Whatever brain cells of mine that were wired up to speak Hindi (badly, I might add) were being rewired a la franciaise! Some strange resource allocation mechanism was recycling my brain cells without my knowledge or consent. I think this French invasion in my brain continued unabated and assimilated a chunk of my English cells as well. The end result was that my English got all messed up, and my French never got good enough. I do feel a bit sorry for my confused brain cells. Karma, I guess — I shouldn’t have confused the sari salesman.

Though spoken in jest, I think what I said is true — the languages that you speak occupy distinct sections of your brain. A friend of mine is a French-American girl from the graduate years. She has no discernable accent in her Americanese. Once she visited me in France, and I found that whenever she used an English word while speaking French, she had a distinct French accent. It was as though the English words came out of the French section of her brain.

Of course, languages can be a tool in the hands of the creative. My officemate in France was a smart English chap who steadfastly refused to learn any French at all, and actively resisted any signs of French assimilation. He never uttered a French word if he could help it. But then, one summer, two English interns showed up. My officemate was asked to mentor them. When these two girls came to our office to meet him, this guy suddenly turned bilingual and started saying something like, “Ce qu’on fait ici.. Oh, sorry, I forgot that you didn’t speak French!”

Speak Your Language

The French are famous for their fierce attachment to their language. I got a taste of this attachment long time ago when I was in France. I had been there for a couple of years, and my French skills were passable. I was working as a research engineer for CNRS, a coveted “fonctionnaire” position, and was assigned to this lab called CPPM next to the insanely beautiful callanques on the Mediterranean. Then this new colleague of ours joined CPPM, from Imperial College. He was Greek, and, being new to France, had very little French in him. I took this as a god-given opportunity to show off my French connection and decided to take him under my wing.

One of the first things he wanted to do was to buy a car. I suggested a used Peugeot 307, which I thought was a swanky car. But this guy, being a EU scholar, was a lot richer than I had imagined. He decided to buy a brand-new Renault Megane. So I took him to one of the dealers in Marseille (on Blvd Michelet, if memory serves). The salesman, a natty little French dude with ingratiating manners, welcomed us eagerly. The Greek friend of mine spoke to me in English, and I did my best to convey the gist to the French dude. The whole transaction probably took about 15 minutes or so, and the Greek friend decided buy the car. After the deal was all done, and as we were about to leave, the Frenchman says, “So, where are you guys from, and how come you speak in English?” in flawless English. Well, if not flawless, much more serviceable than my French was at that point. We chatted for a few minutes in English, and I asked him why he didn’t let it on that he spoke English. It could’ve save me a world of bother. He said it was best to do business in French. For him, certainly, I thought to myself.

Thinking about it a bit more, I realized that it is always best to do business in whatever language that you are most comfortable in, especially if the nature of the transaction is confrontational. Otherwise, you are yielding an undue advantage to your adversary. So, next time you are in Paris, and that cabbie wants 45 euros for a trip when the meter reads 25, switch to English and berrate him before settling the issue. It softens the target, at the very least.

English as the Official Language of Europe

The European Union commissioners have announced that agreement has been reached to adopt English as the preferred language for European communications, rather than German, which was the other possibility.

As part of the negotiations, the British government conceded that English spelling had some room for improvement and has been accepted a five year phased plan for what will be known as EuroEnglish (Euro for short).

In the first year, “s” will be used instead of the soft “c”. Sertainly, sivil servants will reseive this news with joy. Also, the hard “c” will be replaced with “k”. Not only will this klear up konfusion, but typewriters kan have one less letter.

There will be growing publik enthusiasm in the sekond year, when the troublesome “ph” will be replased by “f”. This will make words like “fotograf” 20 persent shorter. In the third year, publik akseptanse of the new spelling kan be expected to reach the stage where more komplikated changes are possible.

Governments will enkorage the removal of double letters, which have always ben a deterent to akurate speling. Also, al wil agre that the horible mes of silent “e”s in the language is disgrasful, and they would go.

By the fourth year, peopl wil be reseptiv to steps such as replasing “th” by “z” and “w” by “v”. During ze fifz year, ze unesesary “0″ kan be dropd from vords kontaining “ou”, and similar changes vud, of kors, be aplid to ozer kombinations of leters.

Und efter ze fifz yer, ve vil al be speking German lik zey vunted in ze forst plas…

A Crazy Language

This crazy language, English, is the most widely used language in the history of our planet. One in every seven humans can speak it. More than half of the world’s books and three quarters of international mail is in English. Of all the languages, it has the largest vocabulary perhaps as many as two MILLION words. Nonetheless, let’s face it, English is a crazy language. There is no egg in eggplant nor ham in hamburger; neither apple nor pine in pineapple. English muffins weren’t invented in England or French fries in France. Sweetmeats are candies while sweetbreads, which aren’t sweet, are meat.

We take English for granted. But if we explore its paradoxes, we find that quicksand can work slowly, boxing rings are square and a guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig.

And why is it that writers write but fingers don’t fing, grocers don’t groce and hammers don’t ham? If the plural of tooth is teeth, why isn’t the plural of booth beeth? One goose, two geese. So one moose, two meese?

Doesn’t it seem crazy that you can make amends but not one amend, that you comb thru annals of history but not a single annal? If you have a bunch of odds and ends and get rid of all but one of them, what do you call it? If teachers taught, why didn’t preacher praught? If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat? If you wrote a letter, perhaps you bote your tongue?

Sometimes I think all the English speakers should be committed to an asylum for the verbally insane. In what language do people recite at a play and play at a recital? Ship by truck and send cargo by ship? Have noses that run and feet that smell?

How can a slim chance and a fat chance be the same, while a wise man and wise guy are opposites? How can overlook and oversee be opposites, while quite a lot and quite a few are alike? How can the weather be hot as hell one day and cold as hell another?

Have you noticed that we talk about certain things only when they are absent? Have you ever seen a horseful carriage or a strapful gown? Met a sung hero or experienced requited love? Have you ever run into someone who was combobulated, gruntled, ruly or peccable? And where are all those people who are spring chickens or who would actually hurt a fly?

You have to marvel at the unique lunacy of a language in which your house can burn up as it burns down, in which you fill in a form by filling it out and in which an alarm clock goes off by going on.

English was invented by people, not computers, and it reflects the creativity of the human race (which, of course, isn’t a race at all). That is why, when the stars are out, they are visible, but when the lights are out, they are invisible. And why, when I wind up my watch, I start it, but when I wind up this essay, I end it.

[Unknown source]