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The Road to Babel


In 1951 there was a riot in the northern Dutch province of Friesland. It was not much of a riot, really, but the reasons for it, and the consequences, were interesting. The trouble started when a judge refused to hear the testimony of a local veterinarian in Frisian. The judge couldn’t understand Frisian, an old Germanic language related to Dutch, German, and English, and in any case Dutch was the official language of public affairs in Friesland. So the judge, though perhaps a little tactless, was within his rights.

Things were stirred up, however, by the editor of a local newspaper named Fedde Schurer, who wrote a scorching attack against the judge, comparing him to the “Saxon gang” which invaded Friesland from Germany at the end of the fifteenth century. Schurer was prosecuted for contempt of court. A mob gathered in protest in the central square of Leeuwarden, the provincial capital. Schurer was carried around on the shoulders of his supporters. The police charged with truncheons; the fire brigade pulled out the water hoses. Schurer, the people’s hero, fell through a glass window and scratched his arm. The national press began to pay attention. Metropolitan arrogance was condemned. And as a result, Frisian was recognized in 1956 as a language that could be used in the courts for the first time since the sixteenth century, when Friesland became a province of the Dutch Republic.

The idea of Frisian as a kind of national language was, like so much else, a product of nineteenth-century Romanticism. It had not been used in government, schools, or churches for hundreds of years. But in the late 1800s, folk poets emerged to promote the native tongue. The first Bible translation was only completed in the 1940s. Teaching the language in primary schools has been permitted since 1937 and in higher education since 1980. About 400,000 people now know Frisian—that is to say, about half the people in Friesland have at least a passive knowledge of it. You can hear it spoken on radio stations. This revival has come as a reaction against the uniformity of standard Dutch, an assertion of local identity, rather like Welsh, Irish, or Catalan.

There is a price to pay for too much regional chauvinism. At least all Frisians are educated in Dutch. But the Catalans are so keen to defend their language that Castillian Spanish is often neglected; some even prefer to learn English. As a result, Barcelona is in danger of becoming a more provincial city than it should be, isolated in a linguistic fog.

My paternal grandfather spoke Frisian at home. But he moved to Amsterdam to study theology, a common intellectual pursuit among gifted provincials. My father does not speak a word of Frisian. All that is left of our Frisian heritage is our name; a perverse pride in the fact that twelve hundred years ago Frisians murdered an eighty-year-old English priest named Boniface who had no business converting natives to the Roman faith; and the imperfect mastery of one sentence in Frisian, used during the old struggles against the Saxon gang, when a legendary hero named Big Pier swung his club with devastating effect. It was a password meant to weed out alien infiltrators. It goes, in English translation: “Butter, bread, and green cheese, if you can’t say that, you’re not a real Fries” (Bûter, brea en griene tsiis, wa’t dat net sizze kin is gjin oprjochte Fries).

One of the main attractions of a native tongue, or dialect, or slang, indeed the main reason for reviving or inventing one, is the fact that outsiders don’t get it. In a sense the entire language is a kind of password. If you understand, you pass. From a strictly regional point of view, my father and I have lost an “identity.” We don’t get it anymore either, we don’t pass, in Friesland. That is the way of the world. Once you head for the metropole, mud of the old soil does not stick to your boots for long. I can still speak and write in Dutch, but make a living by writing in English, my mother’s language. For me the metropole has shifted even farther afield than Amsterdam. This is hardly unusual either. I am just one in a crowd of Bengalis, Chinese, Germans, Cubans, Russians, Belgians, Poles, and whatnot who have gone the same route.

Whether we like it or not, North America has become, in a linguistic sense, the metropole of the world; the rest is periphery, even though almost a billion people—15 percent of the world’s population—speak Mandarin Chinese, and 266 million speak Spanish. English is the lingua franca of international business, pop music, computer technology, airline travel, and much else besides. The French don’t like it, but English is now the main language spoken in meetings of the European Commission in Brussels. English is the language of Hollywood movies, the common currency of worldwide entertainment. And in more and more countries, English is becoming the language of science and higher education too, replacing Latin as the lingua franca of learning.

A Dutch minister of education seriously suggested some years ago that English should be the language of instruction at all Dutch universities. The idea is not new. An education minister of the Meiji government in nineteenth-century Japan had a similar, though more radical, suggestion: only after English had replaced Japanese as the national language would Japan become a modern and civilized nation. His idea did not bear fruit. But as for Holland, another former Dutch minister of education recently told me he was convinced that English would be the nation’s primary language in two or three generations. If he is right, Dutch will go the way of Frisian, a badge of nostalgic identity, but nothing more than that. And the danger, in that event, would be that the Dutch would become like Singaporeans, proficient in several languages, masters of none. And where the Dutch go, others might follow.

The domination of a metropolitan language, whether Dutch, English, Castilian, or Chinese, can indeed be a fearful thing. Identities are threatened. But in fact mastery of the native language is often a password even in the metropole itself. I am convinced that my maternal grandfather, the son of an immigrant, and thus more British than the British, deliberately mispronounced his French, lest he be mistaken for a foreigner. So language is clearly a sensitive issue; and yet I believe the fears are often misplaced, and, when they are manipulated for political ends, sinister.

Some are so worried about the domination of English that they use such phrases as “killer language,” as though English were a kind of epidemic disease striking all people dumb in their own languages. The pathological terminology is no coincidence. Those who speak of killer languages, and deplore the extinction of Mbabaran in Australia or Wappo in the American West, also use terms such as “biolinguistic diversity” and link the survival of languages to larger ecological concerns: the disappearance of rain forests, animal life, and rare flora. Native habitats, ecolinguists claim, sometimes with good reason, are ruined by “biological waves” of Europeans and Americans crashing through the dense but fragile world of tribes and small peoples. Experts say there are still about six thousand languages spoken of which only about six thousand are expected to survive very long.

Guardians of more robust languages, such as the members of the French Academy, worry less about extinction than pollution. Words such as le weekend or le fax make them ill. And if you think Franglais is bad, take note of Japanese, which absorbs a huge mangled vocabulary from English, as it did before from Chinese, and even Portuguese and Dutch. A strike is a suto, from sutoraiki; to quit a health-threatening habit is to make a dokuta sutoppu (doctor’s stop); to sexually harass is to commit seku-hara. A personal computer is a paso-kon, a golfing handicap a hande, and so on. Creative linguistic pilfering is easy to do in Japanese, for a new verb can be created by simply sticking the verb ending ru at the end of any borrowed phrase, as in, say, makuru, to eat a McDonald’s hamburger—maku, short for Makudonarudo, and ru. (The equivalent in French, by the way, is bouf-fer un macdo.) The interesting thing is that the Japanese, like my British grandfather, are notoriously bad at learning foreign languages, partly, I believe, for xenophobic reasons, as though paralyzed by the thought that speaking a foreign language too well would sully the purity of one’s Japaneseness.

Keeping a language pure of outside influences is always a losing battle, for no language was ever pure in the first place. Old English was changed enormously by Norman French, but Old English was itself a mixture of Frisian, Anglian, and various Saxon dialects. The Japanese writer Tanizaki Junichiro once promoted the idea that only pure Japanese, stripped clean of Chinese loanwords, would be fine enough to convey the deepest literary expressions. Since almost 60 percent of the Japanese language consists of Chinese loanwords, this was an impractical suggestion. But he made it in the 1930s, a time of overheated nationalism, and such drives toward purification are invariably inspired more by political than literary concerns.

The French have been worried about Anglo-Saxon pollution for a long time. Charles Maurras, a gifted prose stylist and a poisonous philosopher who founded the ultra-right Action Française, was a grumpy spectator at the first modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896. He was particularly incensed by the sound of English spoken around him, especially American English, that “disgusting patois.” Indeed, he thought international sports were a bad thing, for they infected the world with noxious Anglo-Saxon expressions. Maurras, a great defender of French classical purity, took a biological view of things, just like the ecolinguists. English was rootless, cosmopolitan, and infectious, like a disease. Naturally, he was a raving anti-Semite too.

Flemish Belgians have waged a long battle against foreign pollution, except that in their case the linguistic enemy is French, the language of the Walloons, who used to be richer and more powerful than the Flemish speakers. Flemish, a dialect of Dutch, was full of French words, just as English is, but for political reasons official Flemish pedagogues did their best to find Dutch equivalents for every French loanword. The results are rich in comic absurdity, at least to the Dutch ear. Helicopter thus becomes wentelwiek, literally “wheeling wing.” The other result is that more and more Flemings refuse to learn French. And since few Walloons know Dutch, two Belgians meeting in Antwerp or Liège will often find themselves speaking in English.

The main danger, however, of linguistic purism is not absurdity so much as stagnation and lifelessness. The example of Singapore is a warning less against using English as the main language of instruction in a country where most people speak something else as well than against too much engineering. The former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew has been a ferocious watchdog in this regard, trying to ban Chinese dialects in public life, or issuing public warnings against using Sino-Malay slang while speaking English. One reason so many Singaporeans cannot speak any language really well is their self-consciousness. Forced to speak an affected 1950s BBC English in public, they lapse into a looser, slangier hybrid tongue called Singlish in private, almost as though to spite the stern headmaster. Too stiff or too slangy—neither is likely to produce great literature.

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