Language, mind your

There was a nice story on the radio today. Someone responsible for setting up road signs in Wales (where signs must be bilingual) wanted to know what the Welsh for ‘Narrow entrance’ was, and duly emailed the relevant office for a translation. Alas, the receiver of the message was not in the office, and an auto-reply arrived (in Welsh) saying ‘I am out of the office till Tuesday’. Since the questioner could not speak Welsh, he took this to be the translation. Bilingual drivers were therefore faced with the sign ‘Narrow Entrance. I will be out of the office till Tuesday’.

Stories like this always make me think about my dual instinct where language is concerned. The preservation of ancient languages is a thorny business. On one hand, languages – and there are supposed to be between five and six thousand of them, although the number is shrinking – are the most particular sign of a culture’s integrity, as is obvious from the numerous occasions on which invaders have started by refusing indigenous people the right to use a language, or taken steps to blot the language out. Many fictions, poems and plays dwell on this (Brian Friel’s ‘Translations’ is just one of the most obvious). And the issue of the Welsh language in particular, which would have died out if it hadn’t been for the long, grinding and ceaseless campaign in the twentieth century, is one of the prickliest, with many jobs in Wales requiring bilingualism, and English speakers often making a big fuss about their children being taught Welsh. The nearer to Monmouthshire (the disputed county), the greater the fuss.

Part of me thinks that the preservation of language, like the preservation of buildings, is rampant sentimentalism, trying to hold back the forward movement of time. That part of me is quite keen on the principles of the Esperanto movement, to which I’ll come back in a future blog. The other part of me thinks that everything should be preserved, and regrets the loss of the great library at Alexandria. Perhaps this is a subject on which it is possible to hold almost contrary views. It needs a greater airing.

My monolingualism, however, is perfectly shameful. It was most seriously exposed in France in about 2003, when I was waved over by a gun-toting gendarme in Southern France – not far from Toulouse, and probably because I had a car with Paris numberplates. (Parisians are not too popular when you start getting closer to the Pyrenees.) I was asked where I came from, and, summing up all the remains of my O level French, 1966, grade 3, I answered, to translate back what I said, ‘I come from the place where the planes fall out of the sky’. By which I meant, ‘the airport’.

The gendarme gave me a laconic look. ‘Anglais,’ he said. Shameful.

I’ll come back to the subject of invented languages in due course. I have two internal Fascists on this subject, and they need to fight it out.

The radio show diversified, by the way, into reader emails along the lines of ‘why do we say we chop down trees, and then that we chop them up?’ There were also inconclusive discussions of ‘gruntled’ and ‘disgruntled’. The one that bugs me is that ‘ingenuous’ is a synonym for ‘disingenuous’. Should I celebrate this kind of thing?


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