“The problem with France is that there’s no French word for entrepreneur.”
It’s tragic that George W. Bush didn’t actually say this, because it perfectly illuminates the stealth with which languages insinuate themselves into each other. If you speak English, you probably know that when you say sans and en vogue you’re using import words. But you might also think you’re speaking English when you refer to a blonde or a brunette.
Recently there’s been a lot of interest in untranslatable loaner words. These get passed around the internet as linguistic amuse bouches. But it might not be long before you’re throwing iktsuarpok around in your daily bants. The permeability of the English language is part of what has ensured its higgledy-piggledy rise to global dominance. This feat of linguistic and cultural assimilation becomes even more impressive when you consider that it couldn’t be repeated even when exactingly planned — and when you consider how strenuously other cultures have resisted the same fate.
French is just one of many stowaways in the English language. Lothario’s Italian origins are obvious, but did you know about dildos? Zero is Arabic in origin. Even patio, that most beige of suburban vocabulary, traces its roots to Spain, alongside cafeteria and barbecue. Lately it’s German imports that are ascendant, maybe because they’re über-zeitgeisty. Angst — that speedball of emotions, equal parts depression and anxiety — is no mere erzatz neurosis (ennui might suffice but it’s hardly a doppelgänger). You’d be forgiven for wondering whether English has any English words in it at all.
But as these words cross linguistic borders, they do more than just expand our catalogue of utilitarian descriptors. They smuggle with them something else from their native culture, a kind of Germanness, or Italianness, or Frenchness that’s hard to define. You know, like a je ne sais quoi.
That was Hitler’s justification for closing the borders of the German language. There was already too much French diluting the language (in the late 17th century Friedrich Wilhelm opened Brandenburg to French Huguenots fleeing Louis XIV’s Catholic persecution. By 1700, one third of the population of Berlin was Huguenot, and the language soon tilted very French.)
Hitler sought to undo that. In a hamfisted way he understood that language is the primary vector by which cultures infiltrate one another. So in an effort to close the barn doors, the Nazis instituted “Nazi Deutsch“, an ultra pure language that replaced any words and concepts of insufficiently German pedigree with brutally literal compound words. It wasn’t just Yiddish words that were scoured. Photo became Lichtbild (light picture), telephone became Fernsprecher (farspeaker). French foods were Germanized. Eau de Cologne became Koelnisch Wasser. Even physicists could no longer speak of hertz because Heinrich Hertz was Jewish.
Well, never mind. After the second world war, German has become one of the most anglicized languages in the world. Technology especially has ensured that a large percentage of German is English, but it doesn’t always make sense — I remain puzzled as to why the word for mobile phone is “handy”.
Neither is protecting the home language reserved for genocidal maniacs. The Académie française — created in the 1600s to scrub the Italian influence out of French — is now chiefly concerned with protecting the purity of the language from “Franglaisfication” — Le Big Mac notwithstanding. The US hasn’t been immune either; during the second world war, sauerkraut briefly endured the name “liberty cabbage”, and the “freedom fries” incident is still embarrassingly fresh.
In a terrific 2013 Guardian piece, Andrew Gallix described the furor that erupted when French universities considered teaching some courses in English to attract more international students from the likes of China and India. In these countries English is the de facto second language. Why? The porousness of English linguistic borders partly accounts for it. It’s not simply down to the simplicity of the syntax (our nouns for example are ungendered). It’s the license to assimilate complex emotional concepts from other languages.
That has consequences beyond a ballooning dictionary. Words aren’t just utilitarian conveyances of abstract concepts. They come loaded with all kinds of stowaways: what better synecdoche than “schadenfreude” for the certain pettiness that permeates the German character? (I’m German so I can say that – with love of course, fellow Germans! stand down.) And how else to explain “bof“?
This emotional “payload” is probably the number one thing that was missing from Esperanto, a language created out of whole cloth in 1887 with ambitions of becoming the world’s international language. As you can imagine, Esperantists ran afoul of Hitler’s language Nazification program — many were executed — but the Nazis needn’t have worried. Esperanto had ideas above its station. That’s precisely because it was designed to carry no payload, emotional, cultural or otherwise.
Not that it wasn’t a really nice idea. Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof created Esperanto because he believed cultural stowaways in language were to blame for the conflict in the world. Esperanto would be a coolly neutral global language. But that bloodlessness was its undoing. (It has since downgraded its ambitions to being “the auxiliary language”, and if that means “academic curiosity many people are vaguely familiar with”, they have succeeded!) Meanwhile, English continues on its path to being an organic version of Esperanto, packed with all the best cuts of vocabulary from around the globe.
To sum up the significance of the French language melee, Andrew Gallix turned to Roland Barthes, the French linguist and philosopher who indicted language itself as fascist: “not because it censors but on the contrary, because it forces us to think and say certain things… We are spoken by language as much as we speak through it.” The French language – and thus how the French think and speak, their worldview – is controlled by the state. English is a free-for-all. Is there a middle ground? I don’t want to get all Hitler about it, but it wouldn’t kill us to have a bit of border security. Because bukkake. [at reader request, edited to add that while there are no images in the urban dictionary definition, it’s still strongly NSFW]
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