Monday, September 22, 2008

Actes et Paroles



Hardly anyone in Britain learns a foreign language these days apart from us glorious Welsh, and all we learn is English.

There are dialectically objective reasons for this:


  • All the foreign types your average Englishman meets either speak English or are eager to learn - Club 18-30/Saga/timeshare reps, Brazilian pre-opp transsexuals, Spanish policemen, Greek scam artists, Romanian au pairs/aspirant second wives, Polish barmaids, amusing gîte owners, Amsterdam dominatrices: they all speak commercial English.

  • The main foreign language on offer in British schools is French, which is almost unpronounceable and spoken by unsavoury sorts - recalcitrant gîte owners, Belgian paedophiles, the Tontons Macoutes, advanced film-makers and the French.

  • The only other languages on offer are either even harder (German and Russian), spoken by sinister thugs (German and Russian again) or just primary-school French with a dash of back vowels (Spanish and Italian).

  • British people who already speak a foreign language are pretty suspect - teachers, bankers, North Londoners with children called Inigo and Suki at the hotel table next to you, theatrical types, terrorists and the late Edward Heath.
And that school trip to Normandy, on which contact with fag-dangling t-shirted French teens left your female classmates with a distingué disdain for sherbet, Star Trek and tank-tops, is still too painful to mention.

Rash Papist Tony Blair tried to change this by introducing yet more French, this time at tot level, but could find no teachers willing to sit in a roomful of infants going "ronrone".

English liberals, with their connoisseur's eye for the next big tyranny, seek out schools ("private, but what are we expected to do?") or at least nannies that offer Chinese. Conservatives shore fragments against our ruins.

They trouble themselves for naught. I'm a border-hopping polyglot who's bathed in the penicillin of cross-cultural congress on several continents, at least one of which I discovered by myself. As such I can cite testimony to the effect that a gentleman traveller needs no more than three phrases to get by in any given language.

My neighbour in Tashkent was a retired KGB officer who had moved into property development - mainly that of political prisoners, from what I could see. Over arack and Bulgarian cigarettes one evening I asked him how to go about learning his native Uzbek - a tricky tongue that 18th century Turkish nomads developed to help speed purloined Persians through their eunuch training courses.

"Throw away your text books, son," he drawled. "This is all you need - indeed, all you can get away with - in the knife-happy defile that is Uzbek society. When you meet someone, say 'assalamu aleikum' before they do. They'll like that. When they ask you how you are - 'yaxshimisiz?' - say 'juda yaxshi, rahmat' - very well, thank you'. They may ask how your family is - 'uydaghilar tinchmi?' - they are also 'juda yaxshi' whether they exist or not as far as we are concerned. 'Man Angliadan' - 'I am from England' - will clear up any other conversation. Attempts at asking Uzbeks anything else could get you thrown from a minaret in a sack full of cats. Cheers!"

He was right. I spent three years as the lion of the pilau-circuit due to my wondrous ability to say my spectral wife and kids were from England and doing ok, thanks.

At the time I recalled that my fellow-student in Soviet Moscow, "Tubby" Roberts, had got through an entire year of perestroika mania with the following Cockney-accented phrases:

  • Privet - hello.
  • Yeshcho raz - same again.
  • Izvini, ya ochen zanyat. Zakhodi poslezavtra - Sorry, I'm very busy. Drop round day after tomorrow.
No social chemistry with Russians is so complicated that it cannot be handled with these simple formulae. A meeting with President Yeltsin would have gone swimmingly with the first two phrases. A meeting with President Putin could have been avoided with the third, for at least a while.

Since this epiphany I have collected language manuals published in the British Empire prior to 1947, and found that they are all based on this principle.

A valuable resource is the back catalogue of Mssrs Routledge & Kegan Paul. Its current language series is a dreary sheaf of shopping inquiries and verb tables, but once it gloried in such works as "Colloquial Arabic" by De Lacy O'Leary, in which donkey-wrangling plays a major part.

Other classics in the series include Elwell-Sutton's guide to buying a beer in Esfahan and addressing the Crown Prince of Persia, and a book on Hungarian by Ugric loon Arthur H Whitney that dealt largely with cheating army officers at the card table. Excellent.

The pride of my collection is "The Modern Pushtu Instructor" (1938), which taught Army of India officers how to supervise the Pathans as they went about their business of molesting unbelievers and kidnapping the wives of Peshawari barbers. It illustrated the regular conjugation with the verb "to beat". I find introductions to Afghans are always eased by my sole phrase - "Hindu halakano wahalay day" ("The boys beat the Hindu").

Experience suggests that some parts of the world need only one or two words, repeated firmly, to make a Briton feel at home. "Yalla, yalla!" will do in the Near East, "Bas, bacche" produces striking results for Inner Asia, and "jiggy jiggy" gets you a hotel room from Bangkok to Mindanao.

The key is to seek out likeminded people. Dads make themselves understood wherever they go, and Guardian-readers can source a salad in the most carnivorous of climes.

Among souls with a deep spiritual bond, words are simply superfluous. As I recently related to MC Ward, a friend was once hired to interpret for a group of Kyrgyz policemen. The Home Office had invited them to Britain to learn the ways of civilised law-enforcement, and decided that the force best equippped to do the job was the West Midlands Police.

My friend had little to do, as the coppers found their common interest in kicking witnesses downstairs then shoving their heads into toilet bowls broke through the language barrier - that and so much more.

And now, if you'll excuse me, ya ochen zanyat. Zakhodi poslezavtra.




45 comments:

Gorilla Bananas said...

Tricky things, human languages. Beware of the smiling Hindu who advises you to address a Pathan as mahder-choot. If a human doesn't understand English, I grunt and use sign language.

Gyppo Byard said...

I once made the acquaintance of a chap from New York who took the view that everyone was trying to cheat him, all the time. He had thus mastered one phrase of Bahasa Indonesia - "SPURTY-COW!", which was his attempt as saying 'seperti kau', meaning "like you!", on the assumption that anyone anything said to him was an insult. While this might be a reasonable view for dealing with life in NY, it was tragically misplaced among the guileless and smiling lovelies of the Malay Archipelago, who found their blushing invites thus rebuffed. I took it as m'duty to international relations to comfort them, of course.

Gadjo Dilo said...

Horrowshow.

My flat is equiped with phrasebooks from the Epoca de Aur ("communist era") with phrases that translate as things like Dear esteemed comrade fellow-passengers. Surprisingly, perhaps, these tend to get a laugh when I use them, thus smoothing my passage.

Daphne Wayne-Bough said...

A well-travelled old friend of mine (now sadly deceased) once claimed that two phrases in any language would get you round the world: "Do you live with your parents?" and "My friend is paying".

You sound just like that Borat bloke when you speak Uzbek. It's very like Polish. "Jeszcze raz" would get you through a long night in Wroclaw.

Mrs Pouncer said...

I think you're pessimistic. I only have 2 children left in secondary education (all the others are too old) and between them they study French, German, Spanish, Latin and Mandarin, and this is in Reading for Chrissakes. As usual, the Thames Valley is to the fore. Also, what about those of us who have had to speak a foreign language from childhood just so as elderly visiting relatives can be told where the lavatory is?

No Good Boyo said...

GB, I believe the otherwise tedious feudal Trotskyist Tariq Ali once told The New Statesman that his favourite Punjabi folk tale was the touching story of the modar chod. We all wept.

Gyppo, you are what better Americans might call a "stand-up guy". Literally, this case.

Totalitarian language was the satirist's gift, Gadjo. The expat satirist, that is.

Daphers, you best me with those choice phrases. Mrs Boyo also thinks Uzbek sounds like Polish. A mistake, like that of the sapper, that you only make once.

Mrs Pouncer, I wouldn't want to comment directly on your charming progency, but to study is not to speak. I have studied Ms Salma Hayek for many years, but we have yet to exchange words. And having a bilingual upbringing is no one's fault. How else would I have learned the English?

Mrs Pouncer said...

Well, you're wrong. One of my twins is so boastful and self-assured that the child rarely speaks in the mother tongue. Of course, this is done solely to irritate and unsettle the rest of the family.

scarlet-blue said...

I am blonde with good tits; what do I need with language?

Sx

M C Ward said...

A colleague of mine once pointed out that it's impossible to sound hard in French.

Ms Blue - please tell us more, or send a photo. I'm restraining myself from making a comment involving the ambiguous word "tongue".

scarlet-blue said...

You are quite right Mr Ward, I tongue very softly in French.

Sx

Mrs Pouncer said...

Boyo - are you going to stand idly by and allow this sort of licentious behaviour to hijack what WAS a thoroughgoing discourse on languages ancient and modern? MC - I'm surprised and disappointed. In the past month I have referenced my nurses's uniform, my Rigby & Peller corset and my getting nekkid in the Thames, and not once, NOT ONCE, did you request any 10 x 8s. The only person who did was Kevin, but he asks everyone.
Scarlet, pull yourself together. MC is solidly married and his underpants are a disgrace.

No Good Boyo said...

Mrs Pouncer is right by birthright and definition.

Ms Blue, any discussion of your personal attributes on my web blog requires prior approval. Please send your mauve daguerrotypes to my email address at once.

MC, think of the regiment! Your friend is right about the essential douceur of French, though. That's why they favour Corsican for thuggery and Moroccans for buggery.

To return to our previous erudite theme. Portuguese and Polish - languages, dialects or speech defects? Discuss.

scarlet-blue said...

I am too young for the daguerreotypes; will digital do?
Sx

No Good Boyo said...

Ms Blue, my technical advisor tells me digital is by far the best medium for email. I shall study your offering at home.

Gyppo Byard said...

Boyo - I am a mature man of good standing and furthermore Ms Blue is blonde and therefore outside my specialist field. Would you like me to spank her soundly for her impertinence?

No Good Boyo said...

Mrs Pouncer, would you have a word with Gyppo please?

scarlet-blue said...

Yes, Mrs P, I think Mr Gyppo has something disgraceful in his underpants as well.
Sx

M C Ward said...

Whoah up there.

My request for photographic evidence was simply made for reasons of authenticity - otherwise people can go around saying whatever they want. If I boast about my assets, I always send a photo together with my claims.

Sophie Rayworth of the BBC wasn't as impressed as I imagined, but it's hard to bring a prosecution against British nationals living in Brazil, as the Ronald Biggs case proves.

Mrs Pouncer - I'd love a photo of you, if you'd like to send me one. Or of anybody else, for that matter.

M C Ward said...

Returning to linguistics, as for Portuguese and my recent experience with Polish, I feel they have similarities.

At a Catholic mass we sang at (the Poles love their masses) we became convinced that the congregation was chanting Ai que cheiro danado (My, what a damnèd odour) in reply to the priest's blessings.

Portuguese from Portugal is a speech impediment, according to Brazilian researchers at USP. It is spoken by people with a morbid fear of vowel sounds.

Mrs Pouncer said...

The only words I will have with Gyppo will be of the anodyne, emollient type as we have forged a common bond via the Oxfam Bookshop. I fully intend to hover in the Rare & Collectable section, my Fenella Fielding persona to the fore, until I find him.

No Good Boyo said...

Never were two sweeter words put in proximity than "Fenella" and "Fielding", Mrs P, so you are forgiven your dereliction of duty.

With you on Portguese, MC. It's Spanish for drunks. Polish is Ukrainian as spoken by fugitives from the Czernowitz Cabinet of Madame Boyo's Father.

Gyppo Byard said...

I can assure all present that there is NOTHING disgraceful in my pants.

The live eels would never stand for it.

Gadjo Dilo said...

Czernowitz is the German spelling, isn't it? Usually transliterated as Chernivtsi from the Ukrainian? It's Cernăuţi in Romanian, and I keep meaning to go there as apparantly it has a fine faded grandeur (though it's now one of the few places from where people emigrate to Romania.) You'll know the history better than me, Boyo...

No Good Boyo said...

Mrs Boyo prefers Czernowitz, disdainful as she is of passing fads like national sovereignty.

She also says the city rivals Czernogratz as werewolf capital of Central Europe. They used to have their own festival there until the Bolsheviks came.

Kevin Musgrove said...

I can still passably and haltingly read French and Russian and can get an idea of what's going on in most of the romance and slav languages if I can look at the pictures. (I don't remember asking Mrs. P. for postcard facsmiles but I'm at a funny age, so who knows?)

Speaking the lingo, ah that's a different thing altogether. I'm pushing my luck saying I can speak English. Imagine, back at school with my Mancunian confrères: "Icky John Paul. Eel a un boot-tail de van." Oh, the humanity!

The Dotterel said...

On the subject of policemen and toilet bowls (that's a reference to your post, Boyo, and has nothing to do with the preceding proceedings) my mate the PC dog-handler was once called out to quell an angry mob of rampaging Zulu warriors in Holbeach. (I kid you not! They were cabbage-cutting in south Lincolnshire - they know how to handle a knife, you know.) Anyway, it had nothing to do with his dog and everything to do with his ability (as a Zimbabwean exile) to speak Afrikaans. The fact that said Zulus had more in common with his dog tells you more about him than the Zulus.

Ordovicius said...

NGB, os wyt ti ar Ffêsbwc, ychwanega'r Welsh Polak hwn i dy ffrindia. ;)

sackcloth and ashes said...

'GB, I believe the otherwise tedious feudal Trotskyist Tariq Ali once told The New Statesman that his favourite Punjabi folk tale was the touching story of the modar chod. We all wept.'

Indeed. The hero of this fake tale was a man called Phuddi, which I understand is Punjabi for 'tw*t' (although in some Pakistani dialects, this is interchangeable with the phrase 'Tarikali').

Kevin Musgrove said...

My grandad had working Swahili, which he'd had to learn when he was a sergeant in charge of a bunch of Masai soldiers in Madagascar and Burma. He was five foot two and a quarter (the quarter was important) and the shortest of his "lads" was six foot one, so he needed to make sure that he was understood.

No Good Boyo said...

I've clearly mined a rich vein of colonial "when we" folk memories here, Kevin and Dotterel. It's often said that history is written by the victors. It's less often remembered that it's annotated by the squaddies.

Sackcloth, I believe there's a Pathan tribe called the Dwinakari who eschew eggs.

Ordo, diolch am y gwahoddiad. Yn anffodus nes i rhoi'r gorau i Lyfr Y Wyneb rhyw fisoedd yn ol, a medra i ddim ei ailagor o!

Gyppo Byard said...

Kevin - my uncle's working Swahili was apparently limited to the ability to sing 'one man went to mow..." in that entertainingly loquacious language. He had spent his national service in the 50s building a railway from Nairobi to Mombasa, or so he claimed.

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