Hold your mother tongue

5148231684_57fa0336c9It’s impossible to find a language in which the world can communicate across linguistic borders. For the time being, we make do with English, but that was a bad solution even before the two major Anglophone countries contracted Mad Voter Disease. The language gives a 6% minority of the world population an edge that leaves most of the other 94% impotent and frustrated.

Of course, any world language spoken natively by some would be a weapon of mass destruction in their hands, leaving all others vulnerable and exposed. In amiable conversation, that’s sort of okay – people don’t nuke their friends. But as soon as there’s conflict of interest, the natives win every time. It’s a fact of life and every international negotiator knows it. Personally, I remember participating in a discussion on a UK radio station a few years ago, in which my English opponent was talking absolute, utter and demonstrable rot. I would have devastated the fellow in any other language I speak. But the shots I fired in what happened to be his first language were barely audible amidst his relentless bombing.

So we need something better, but what? Machine translation has potential, but let’s not put our hopes too high in the short term. Esperanto lacks the political, economic and cultural clout. Mandarin then? Who knows. Frankly, I hope not.

There is a solution though. It’s fairer than what we have at present and more realistic than the alternatives. It’s this: not one world language, but two.

One of these would, at this point in history, still be English. As for the other, let’s call it WL. It could be Spanish, it could be Hindi, it could even be Mandarin, never mind how I feel about it. It’s not the exact choice that matters, it’s the fact that, once we all speak both WL and English, we will never be forced to speak to anyone in their mother tongue again. It will become a matter of basic civility to shut up in one’s first language except in the company of those who prefer to use it – mostly fellow native speakers. At long last, the verbal battle field will be level.

But isn’t it simply too difficult to learn two foreign languages, you wonder? Before answering it (in the negative), let me point out that native English speakers would have to learn only one. But more importantly, multilingualism used to be common in Europe and it still is in Africa, India and many other, smaller regions, so learning two languages is perfectly feasible. Moreover, learning English will become easier as soon as we no longer have to listen to people using obscure idioms, talking at breakneck speed and frowning at our grammar – the native speakers that is, and especially the monolinguals among them.

I guess monolingual native English speakers they are to be pitied rather than censured. But they do cause the problem, and now we have the solution. I can’t wait for WL to emerge. I’m hoping it will be Spanish. But I’ll welcome any of the major languages. Communicating in Mandarin, Arabic or Russian, spoken as a second language by both parties, is preferable to being outtalked and patronised by native English speakers.


Update, in response to questions I’ve received by email: no, native speakers of English do not necessarily use more obscure idioms or talk faster than native speakers of other languages – though the high incidence of monolingualism makes them somewhat more likely to do so. But more importantly, their tendency to do so in conversations with second-language speakers is more of a problem than in others, because theirs happens to be the language of international communication.
Also, English-speakers are far from being the only ones among whom we’ve seen recent outbreaks of unsavoury populism. It’s just that this blogpost happens to be about this language. One of the reasons why the 20th century saw a tremendous rise of English was the endless stream of popular and enviable cultural products from the States, and to a lesser degree from the UK also. Trump and Brexit have badly damaged the image of these countries outside their borders. Of course, this doesn’t immediately stop English from being the world language and things may yet swing back, but recent events surely lessens its appeal – and its appeal is what it ultimately owes its status too.

Politically correct spelling

canadaIn chapter 32 of Lingo, I describe – and poke fun at – the way Latvians and Lithuanians write foreign names. Basically, they spell every name as phonetically as possible and then tag on a case ending for good measure. The first US president is known as Džordžas Vašingtonas in Lithuanian, Džordžs Vašingtons in Latvian; the capital and state named after him are written as Vašingtonas in Lithuanian, Vašingtona in Latvian. In Lingo, I trace the history of this habit, once widespread across Europe, in a very general sort of way.  But at the time, I had no specific information as to why the Lithuanians and Latvians have maintained it, whereas most other language communities using the Latin script dropped it long ago.

Which is why I am grateful to a Lithuanian-American reader of Lingo, Joe Yčas, who recently sent me exactly that. Continue reading

Idioms and images


Some idioms are puzzling

As chance would have it, I was holidaying in Spain just when I had to read the galley proofs of the Spanish edition of Lingo, so I spent part of the time hearing and speaking one of my favourite languages and another part reading and writing it. It was while reading that I came across a translation that made me pause. The original says that Basque and the Indo-European languages are ‘worlds apart’. The translator, José C. Vales, rendered this as mundos independientes, ‘independent worlds’. Perfectly fine, I think: Basque is one world, Indo-European another, and they’re independent, separate – apart. Continue reading

How to be an Anglosplaining jerk

Alison Edwards, the linguist who translated my book Lingo into English, is a columnist and blogger that I much enjoy reading. Here’s her latest blogpost. As it was first published in a Dutch university magazine, she didn’t translate the book title at the end, so I will do it for you: The Discovery of Heaven. Or am I blundering into ‘Dutchsplanation’ here…?  

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll have heard the term mansplaining being bandied around; a portmanteau of the words man and explaining. It was inspired by a landmark essay by the Ameri…

Read the full post at How to be an Anglosplaining jerk

Both inspiring and disgusting

mcwhorterI love Lexicon Valley, the podcast on linguistics. In a show from June, titled The tragedy of English spelling, John McWhorter (upper picture) interviewed Anatoly Liberman (lower picture). Let that line-up sink in for a second: both of them are not only highly regarded professionals, they’re also great popularisers of the science of language. As an admirer of both men, I was listening breathlessly.

And then, along comes this adorable passage. Continue reading

Dad’s polyglots – a recipe

cookbookA father recently sought my advice about the linguistic education of his two young children. Among the many friendly and interesting emails I get from readers of Lingo, this one really stood out, because his was a question I’d never given much thought to before. Our brief correspondence is reproduced below, anonymised, very lightly edited and, of course, with the father’s permission.


I just finished reading Lingo and wanted to extend my compliments. I’m recommending it to all my friends interested in languages. (I’m American, so unfortunately I can count all these folks on one hand).

I’d like to put a question to you. I have two children under the age of 5, and am interested in giving them the gift of a portfolio of languages while they’re still young enough to learn them very easily. But I want to choose wisely. Continue reading

Science update: the articiple

In a surprise turn of events, the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva has generated a new part of speech that does not fit into the Standard Model of Grammar. After smashing participles and articles into each other, experimental linguists found not only particles, as expected, but also words of a hitherto unknown category, provisionally labelled as articiples.

A collision between the article the and the participle gone produced the particle to (which in nature only ever exists in infinitives such as to be) accompanied by the novel word ghene. Now that the experimenters know what to look for, they expect to find other articiples. Until then, it’s hard to ascertain the meaning, function or even pronunciation of ghene.articiple

The discovery has already led to frenzied speculation among theoretical linguists. ‘I believe that smashing articles into any part of speech may yield an “art of speech”, given the right conditions’, said Oene Daasma, a theoretical linguist at the University of Franeker, the Netherlands. ‘And in the privacy of our coffee corner, I’ve heard my Harderwijk colleague Fetze Alsvanouds think out loud that verbs might be turned into adverbs by adding no matter what, preferably nothing or even less. These are exciting times for theoretical linguistics.’


minimumThe scribbles on the right are not just doodles, a badly drawn rough sea or an attempt by a 5-year-old to emulate grown-ups’ fascinating handwriting. A real adult has written a real word here: minimum.

Even if you had figured that out for yourself, you’ll agree it’s not easily legible. That’s due to a shortcoming in our alphabet: the similarity between hand-written i, n, u and m. In many words confusion is never far away, which is why monks, clerks and other writers have come up with all sorts of clever tricks. Continue reading

The importance of the German praying man

EcoTraduttore traditore, usually translated as ‘the translator is a betrayer’, is probably the only Italian expression in my active vocabulary. And other than dictionaries and suchlike, Umberto Eco’s La ricerca della lingua perfetta must be the only Italian book on my shelves. So there is something peculiarly congruous about my discovering, earlier today, a disconcerting translation error in that book.

LutherOn page 98 and 99 of the English-language edition, In Search Of the Perfect Language, I came across a passage claiming that for the German reformer Martin Luther, ‘German was the language closest to God.’ Statements of that sort can easily be found about Hebrew, Arabic, Tamil, Korean and some other languages, possibly including German. Yet flowing from Luther’s quill, it somehow seemed out of character. Continue reading

From plural to singular, three times over

palmPlurals and singulars are not hewn in stone. Plurals, especially those of foreign extraction, are regularly mistaken for singulars, and – sometimes – vice versa.

The word stamina, for instance, was really the Latin plural of the word stamen (a term you may remember from biology class, albeit in a very different meaning), but has in English long been a singular. The same has happened with agenda and, more recently, data. It is happening under our eyes with phenomena. People get worked up about it, but there’s nothing new under the sun. Even the respectable opera was once a plural, and only became a singular because Italians couldn’t be bothered with Latin grammar – and why should they? Continue reading