The English invasion, Dec 19th 2002,
From The Economist print edition
English, a mongrel language itself, has spread its genes worldwide. But does this mean that other languages are doomed?
WHO are i leader no global? Bosses who say no to everything? Not even that concession to its own syntax does the Italian language make: no, they head the anti-globalisation movement. And that\'s in the Corriere della Sera, a Milan newspaper of much solemnity. Such is the ruthless onset of the English language. It is an utter mongrel itself, born of Latin, Greek, German, French and more, plus sundry ex-imperial spatterings. But just take a shufti or a dekko—a look, as British soldiers learned in Egypt and India respectively—at the way the mongrel is biting back.
Witness the Corriere\'s report of one anti smog day, when only odd-numbered cars could move on parts of the historic Via Emilia. But if you dared to risk the raid along it (a word imported via France, as in le raid Paris-Dakar), no need to dribblare like a footballer to avoid the checkpoints—lo stop was pretty random. Not for lack of performance: small towns were excused. Even so, imagine the chaos if a smash had put the—open-to-all—freeway paralleling the historic road in tilt (roughly, a seizure, as in pre-electronic arcade games).
The same issue reported a Cartier opening where the star was greeted by i clacson of cars, i flash of photographers and the applause of i fan. Plus a Dior show—and fashion at least is French, surely? It is not. Hard models, a bit drag queen, but the cut was soft. Then to a rival show, where i top, trench-bustier, body and short were a trifle porno shop. And finally to a super cocktail.
The language of Dante is not alone. On one page in November the Amsterdam De Telegraaf used spam, junkmail, mailbox, software, filters and downloaden; recorded that a rockdiva had a baby, a nieuw album (“Graduated Fool”) and a single destined to become een grote hit; and reported police surveillanceteams watching errant cars—a stationwagon, maybe—with a videocamera (but no radar, since some motorists use a radardetector). Since the 1860s, not just 1945, Japanese has adopted and adapted countless English words. German perhaps outdoes all in its readiness to be invaded: over 30 years ago, a dictionary could list 3,000 recent arrivals from abroad.
And France, whose officials are so keen to protect its tongue from “Anglo-Saxon” pollution, and whose citizens, at least the young ones, barely give a damn? Oddly, both groups may be right. French was never in fact the staid language of Racine or the Académie française. From the days of Villon, some of whose poems, in 15th-century slang, are now a conundrum even to scholars, it has constantly reinvented itself. Like English, it has also absorbed foreign words: the French stay in Algeria left it slang like bled, a village, or toubib, a doctor. Nor has it merely taken in English words but—just as English did in past centuries with French—has transformed their meaning, indeed has invented English-sounding words that English never knew: shakehand (although, curiously, Melanesian pidgin English has sekan, an agreement), talkie-walkie, recordman, rugbyman and other such (though the tram-driving wattman is from Belgium, dressman is a Danish male model and poleman, the one in pole position, seems to have been born in India).
The -ing words of English, for some reason, are especially favoured for adoption. Among the oldest (three centuries or so) clearly English words attested in French are pudding (though it may itself come from the French boudin), redingote, riding-coat and (though this was never naturalised) boulingrin, a bowling green. Many more -ings have recently arrived, nearly all as nouns. Le shopping is pure English. Others are close to the English verb: un lifting, a face-lift, or le pushing, which (in Quebec) is influence or pull. But some are at one remove: un dancing, parking or camping are places where you do those things. And un lashing is further off still—not flagellation but what beauticians do to your eyelashes.
The –ing family has not moved only into French. A smoking, a dinner jacket, is so over most of Europe, Sweden and Russia included. A living is a living-room in French and Spanish; French has listing, Spanish listin, for, simply, a list.
But meanings can vary. In French, pressing is a dry-cleaner\'s shop; in German, tackling, as at football; in Italian, putting pressure. Footing can mean a long trek in French, but also a stroll (which in Italian can be trekking); or, in French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese, it can also mean jogging, though it has now largely given way to jogging itself (which in Belgian French can mean a tracksuit, which in turn, in both French and Hebrew, can be a training). And at one time in Brazilian Portuguese, footing could be the evening walk round the town square, where the young men and women eyed each other up.
So maybe French need not really fear the Anglo-Saxon -ings. But what of newer arrivals like lister, to list, crasher, to crash—as of (but by now not only of) the office systems? Or badger, to use an electronic identity badge? Or the bar that demands looké clothing of its customers? Humph.
Nor, since the 18th century, has French really hit back. The arrival of British media at the European Union has exported a few French idioms to English—“reticent” for “reluctant”, “in the margins of the meeting” or “running into the sand”—but these are new uses, or abuses, of existing English words. L\'informatique, a neat umbrella for the whole field of “computing”, “information technology” and the like, did not catch on in its English form, “informatics”. One of the few true new exports is the change on the fascia of the place where Britons now buy foreign currency, but even that is unknown to ordinary text or speech.
Perhaps French should have done as Spanish and Portuguese have, ruthlessly adapting English words to their own orthography. You might guess a listin, even a mitin, a meeting (and Chileans reverse the process with a walking closet, a cupboard you can walk in to). But would you spot bluyins—blue jeans? The Peruvian guachiman (and his wife, the guachimana) guarding your house, maybe. But the hitchhiker\'s ride, a raid, perhaps with the driver of a picape? Or the Portuguese queque, a little cake? And what is a Cuban\'s jonron? A home run at beisbol—two of many sports terms that have gone worldwide: you may suffer a nocaute if you deride the gol scored by the favourite time of some Brazilian football fã, unless, being a slang-speaking Italian, you deflect trouble at the last moment and are salvato in corner.
In contrast, if French purists want evidence, they can point to the dire results of German complacency: brunchen, clicken, faken, fighten, flippen, jobben (to work part-time), mobben, outen, shoppen and many more. Still, even such horrors are at least inflected German-style. Thus the staff may think they can relaxen, the boss having been gekidnappt, but not so once the management has braingestormt a bit.
And German, like French, has readily reinvented English for its own use. In sport, for example. From tennis\'s Tie-Break and Match-Point, German only in their capital letters, it was a short step to Longline (the tramlines), Volleystop (a drop shot) and Volleycross (a cross-court volley). German women, like Italian, French or some Latin American ones, can buy a Body (-stocking, or maybe a leotard) while their boyfriends haggle over an Oldtimer, an old car. And then to remake contact with a call on the Handy, the mobile phone.
The power of technology
That universal modern toy is strangely un-universal in its name. “TV” and “video” have conquered most of the world, not so the short and easy “mobile”. To the Dutch too it is a handy; to Indonesians a handphone (for them, a mobil is a car), to Israelis a pelephone, to the French a portable, to Spanish-speakers a celular, to Swedes a yuppienalle, the yuppie\'s teddy bear. And to Americans it is a cellphone.
Yet technology habitually spreads language. In the past, English imported “cotton” from Arabic, via Spain; “tussore” began as the Hindustani word for a shuttle. Many English seafarers\' words are borrowed from Dutch. Likewise in later centuries British or American technology often took its English name abroad.
“Cement” became Shanghai\'s word for any street paving, asphalt included; a Gulf mechanic fixes your car with ispannerat. The xerox has spread to Spanish, Portuguese and Russian, to go no further; not to France or Germany, but the document may be faxé or gefaxt. These days it is informatics that spreads the words: an Italian may cliccare or sciftare at his keyboard, and, for all the efforts of officials, Frenchmen get their news off le web, and send it via an e-mail as much as by (delightful hybrid) un mel. Turks send a simple mail. And the Japanese—typically of their Procrustean way with foreign words—use a pasucon, a personal computer, for their masu-komi, mass communications. And if the (widely adopted) software goes wrong, get an Israeli ledabeg, to debug it.
Xerox typifies a wide range of proper names which (as often in English) have become generic. A voksal, as in Vauxhall, a district of London, is a Russian station. Via Indian English, a stepney, a spare wheel, so named after the firm that supplied them, joined Indian vernaculars—and, disguised as an estepe, the Portuguese of Brazil. Brazil also got a hollerite for a pay-cheque, and a bonde for the old trams of Rio, from the British firm that built them. Its citizens, when jogging, are doing cooper, from an American doctor who recommended it; or they may drive a jipe (as do many others, in various spellings), while the native Portuguese lounge in a maples, an armchair, as sold in that London furniture shop.
To Koreans a stapler is a hochikisu, a trenchcoat a babari. To Filipinos (whose Tagalog gave us “the boondocks”), toothpaste is colgate and any video-recorder a betamax. A Pole\'s bicycle is his rover, a former British maker; for like reasons, the chainguard of a French or Italian motorbike is a carter. A French electrician binds bare wires with chatterton, though he will scotcher a parcel, while Spanish-speakers use cinta escoch, though that tape in Brazil is durex (which in turn in Mexico is socks, in Ecuador a cooking stove). And the vast migrant jargon of management-speak and finance has produced one local and short-lived jewel: at the Bank for International Settlements in Basel, 1990s French-speaking regulators learned to cooker a bank\'s assets—not fudge them, but weight them according to rules set out by a committee chaired by a certain Peter Cooke.
A serious question
There are many more oddities. Why did the land of Odysseus need to transcribe “ferryboat” into Greek script? Was it rowing that gave Czech its common greeting, ahoj? Why did Hungarian pick on farmer for jeans? Why did Finnish slang, adopting skidi for a child and biisi for a piece of music, reshape the English originals with sounds—the initial sk- and the b—that are unknown to Finland\'s native tongue? Did Russian really have to hire a killer to murder one\'s business rivals? Perhaps some polymath can tell us. And there is a serious side to all these curiosities. Is it true, as many believe and fear, that adopting English vocabulary is death to other languages? It didn\'t kill English
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