On language

Posted: Oct 04, 2006 12:01 AM

Dear Consultant,

It was wholly a pleasure to receive your reaction to a recent column of mine critical of the English Only types. The column's thesis: Societies that proclaim their mother tongue THE ONE AND ONLY OFFICIAL LANGUAGE are playing a futile and silly game, and in the end may only crimp the style of the language they're supposedly protecting.

I am glad to repeat your e-mailed rebuttal in full:

"Been to South Florida recently, Paul? I was living in Miami in 1970 when the hordes of Cubans didn't speak English. Not too long ago I was in Miami consulting on a court case. Those Cubans (now) spoke perfect English and they were prosperous and productive. If they were still only Spanish speakers, they would be confined to enclaves."

Good point. And the most impressive thing about it is that "those Cubans" and their children and grandchildren -- who by now doubtless have become those Americans -- had acquired English without the government's ever having made it the one, nationally certified Official Language. (Drumroll in background.)

It's as if those folks had figured out -- entirely on their own -- what social mobility required of them. Just like every other immigrant generation. As in many another field, the free market has certain advantages when it comes to language, too.

Government compulsion, particularly in any matter as intimate as the language we speak, and think in, can prove counterproductive.

Whenever I hear people speak fluently in French, or Russian, or Arabic, I am consumed by envy, and even flirt with the idea of trying to learn it. My reaction would surely be different if some official government language czar were to order me to speak another language. ("You vill learn German!")

I can feel my spine stiffening at the very thought. Maybe it's an American's instinctive reaction to being ordered about. I suspect it's also a human reaction.

Sir, you must come visit Northwest Arkansas in 20, 30 years, Lord willing, and have a nice conversation -- in perfect English, or at least fluent Arkinsaw -- with the children and grandchildren of today's hard-working, Spanish-speaking chicken-pluckers and siding-installers. They're a big factor in the economic boom in those parts.

Who knows, you might even be here on business -- to consult with one of their now grown kids, who by then will have become one of the country's leading experts in aerodynamics or international law or some other challenging field. Hey, it's America!

I really should sign this letter:

Son of Immigrant Cobbler


Dear Linguist,

It was wholly a pleasure to get your response to my mentioning the official (and officious) French effort to stamp out all those dangerous Anglicisms that keep infiltrating the language of Racine and Flaubert.

I'm particularly indebted to your mentioning that, when some Frenchmen use the term weekend, they spell it ouiquende.

But of course. And they doubtless pronounce it that way, too.

I can just see Inspector Clouseau, who in my mind is always played by Peter Sellers, that perfect genius at being a perfect idiot, checking into his Œotel rheum for un ouiquende -- but not before asking the desk clerk to give him a massage, since he's expecting one from ze Yard of Scotland.

Goodness, now you've got me doing it, and only Peter Sellers can do an acceptable Clouseau.

A bad imitation, however, is easy. You start with a couple of glasses of cognac and one trench coat. Then you just keep the lips taut and pronounce all vowels way back there somewhere in the nasal cavity. And occasionally throw in some throaty R's and liquid L's. Then stand back.

Result: You get a bad version of a bad French accent. It is sure to annoy the French, preferably at the United Nations.

The real art of the late Mr. Sellers was not that he could play a fumbling imbecile to perfection, but that his Inspector Clouseau was able to turn everyone he met into one. He's already got me talking like a monkey.


Inky Wretch