Do you speak English?


“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.

cartoonFrench 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“?

A little less animated in the hands, and this would be the perfect “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]


Image credits:

Pulp Fiction, Quotes pics

Cartoon bubbles: Shutterstock

Bof: Shutterstock

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6 thoughts on “Do you speak English?

  1. Perhaps that last word should come with NSFW tag, before the reader googles a word he doesn’t know in his lunch break.

  2. I’m sorry! I will do that. I specifically chose a destination page without any images. To the editorium!

  3. And now the link doesn’t work at all and here I am, safely at work with no one looking, and I can’t see it.

  4. I enjoyed this piece, but I hope you will allow me a coupple of comments. Firstly, I am sure that Dr Zamenhof did not believe that “cultural stowaways in language were to blame for the conflict in the world”. He saw the inability to communicate across linguistic boundaries as one cause of war.

    Secondly, I see Esperanto as a remarkable success story. It has survived wars and revolutions and economic crises and continues to attract people to learn and speak it. Esperanto works. I’ve used it in about seventeen countries over recent years. I recommend it to anyone, as a way of making friendly local contacts in other countries.

    Finally, I disagree with your suggestion that Esperanto has no cultural “payload”. You might be surprised to learn that Esperanto has an extensive indigenous culture and an original literature to rival that of many ethnic tongues. Naturally it didn’t start out that way, but when you have such a large community speaking a common language for such a long time, it’s probably inevitable that a culture will emerge. People around the world use Esperanto every day for everything from childrearing to popular music to religious worship to technical manuals to travel guides.

  5. Bill, thanks for your thoughtful comment. I was perhaps overly dismissive of Esperanto; the paper I cite is from 1999, and perhaps the authors eulogised the language before the internet gave it new reach. I’m intrigued by the idea that there is an Esperanto culture. Could you define its character for me? Also, would you consider giving me some examples of Esperanto words that have become loaded with cultural meaning?

  6. I don’t claim to be a great expert in this field (I am not an Esperantologist) but I am a member of the Esperanto-speaking community, so I am happy to tell you what I know.

    I am a great lover of folk music, and I know a lot of Esperanto songs. I found to my delight that the songs I learned in Esperanto were also sung in Berlin, Havana and Zagreb. I should say that while some of the music in Esperanto is brilliant, there is plenty of material which is not to my taste. I don’t like noisy rock songs in any language. You might want to find a music publisher called Vinilkosmo, which is based just outside Toulouse in France. I visited their recording studios some years ago. That company and others have got Esperanto speakers used to African drums and Catalan folk songs and a lot more. Some of this material has its roots in a national or regional culture, but now belongs to a sort of Esperanto people.

    There is well over a century of Esperanto poetry. Whilst there is some naïve versifying, there is some particularly finely crafted poetry by a Hungarian called Kalocsay, for example. There is Esperanto poetry now in its third and fourth editions, and in print for some 70 years. I’m particularly fond of the satirical and comic verse by a Frenchman called Raymond Schwartz. He delighted in exactly the sort of word play. At one time he wrote a column titled “Laŭ mia ridpunkto.” The name was a portmanteau word formed from vidpunkto, (Esperanto for “viewpoint”) and ridi (a word meaning “to laugh”). The column itself was written in a humorous style that included kalemburoj (puns) and antistrofoj (spoonerisms).” That last quotation comes from Wikipedia.

    Esperanto speakers are highly organised. There is a Jarlibro (Yearbook) published annually giving access to a network of local representatives. These people, scattered all over the world and act as ‘consuls’, providing help and information, and passing on the visitor from another country to his/her contacts. When I’m travelling for work or on a family holiday, I usually contact a local representative in advance, to arrange a meeting. In Trieste I was invited to the local Esperanto society, and then to stay at a family home (where no English is spoken) in the hills outside the town. There is an Esperanto badge (when I remember to wear it) which gives unplanned contacts. I don’t think I’ve had more than half a dozen such chance encounters, where I see a badge or someone sees mine. For example, I have come across Esperanto speakers on the metro in Paris and the London underground, and I remember meeting a Norwegian at Vienna airport, when both of us had time on our hands.

    There is a huge range of events (holidays, study sessions, specialist meetings) held in the language every year. See, for example, a list produced annually in Hungary at
    You can go skiing, take part in a fungus foray, learn book-binding, visit archaeological sites in China, the Brittany coast and so on. People who get to know each other at these events make private arrangements to visit each others’ homes. Instead of a privileged position (me as a native speaker of English and the foreigner struggling to recall English words learned years ago), Esperanto puts us on an even footing.

    To some extent there are also shared traditions, like the Zamenhof Day just before Christmas, and shared behaviour patterns, like avoiding the usage of one’s national language at Esperanto meetings unless there are good reasons for its use (Esperanto culture has a special word, krokodili (“to crocodile”), to describe this avoided behaviour).
    Esperanto may not be perfect, but I’ve used it successfully in Africa, South America and Europe, and it does the job. I don’t forget my mother tongue when I use Esperanto, but I do feel that I am part of a much wider and more diverse community.

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