'Smothertongue' > by Dan ( )

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Smother Tongue
Dan | 12:22am,Mon 29 aug 2005 | Siantar, Indonesia

reprinted From Undergrowth #7 - Nomadology


I’m a teacher, apparently. At least, I’ve instructed no less than eight classes of students in the last week. In every village, the English teachers lie in predatory wait for foreigners. If I get seen, they grab me by the arm, drag me into class, plonk me in front of the students and say, “Mister Dan, would you please tell my students why English is such an important language.” Hum.

By the end of the week, I am beginning to get shirty with the procedure, in particular with being detained for many hours on the pretext of dropping by for a few minutes. Gotta learn to stop that. But it’s hard to find reasons to say no, I’m sorry, I know your school is underprivileged, but I would rather drink avocado smoothies and hang out with my art school mates on the lawn. The flattery helps, too. Nothing fluffs up the old ego like being needed. Look at me ma, I’m making a difference. And so it continues.


Until this. This class is night-school, the evening before I leave the country. I have to be at the boat terminal in 14 hours. My kidnapper/teacher this time is an instructor taking a class of bank tellers angling for promotion through the rigours of operating English language money transfer software. The folks are at the stage of speaking where they have to write sentences down in English before saying them out loud. I am not allowed to talk to them in Indonesian, the teacher says, because they won’t take the class seriously. They have to feel that English speakers can speak only English. Fair call. So I speak to them in only English. If I stop and ask them if they understand my slurry strine, they smile at me with the silent ill-ease that you display when a stranger’s mobile phone goes off and the ring tone is a fart. Then, inevitably: “Mister Dan, would you please tell my students why English is such an important language.”

So, this.
Why I Hate English, the little speech I gave them about my own language, as best I can remember, with my best public pomposity:

“Ok, languages tend to have patchy and challenging histories, but English is
something else again. English. A bricolage. A pastiche. A mess. Like daytime TV, what it lacks in elegance it makes up in volume. Why is it that the language we expect the whole planet to learn has its expressiveness tied up in a bloated vocabulary that even native English spellers never get the hang of? The answer, I reckon, is found in its past. (My historical linguistics is hazy, so please feel free to correct any details that I have mangled.)

It’s not so long ago that English had genders, just like all those silly European languages, and freer word order - none of this modern subject-verb-object nonsense. And not so many words in it. It was a language pretty closely related to other Germanic languages, say German and Dutch, and sure enough, the Angles were/are a Germanic tribe. In typical violent English-speaker fashion, they invaded England and displaced the native Celtic speakers. First wacky linguistic encounter! I don’t know what words came from the English collisions with Celtic, so please someone else fill me in. But that’s why there are English speakers (Anglish, originally, yeah?) in England. Cool.

Alright, next up the Romans invaded. Not so many words came into English from them, but I think ‘wall’ was one of them, which gives you some idea what new roman military technology most impressed the Angles. Then England was invaded by its own linguistic cousins, the Danish vikings. They brought their families over, and it was all on. Under the onslaught of English speakers’ first major experiment in multiculturalism, they crumbled, language-wise. The genders went. English became, in some senses a weird, simplified hybrid of Danish and itself. The Danes gave us the words for ‘egg’, for ‘skirt’, ‘window’, and, wait for it, ‘them’. Yipes. Even the most basic words in the language were up for grabs. How intimate a linguistic collision is that?

Next up, in 1066, the French invaded and gave English the biggest injection of new vocabulary it had ever received in one hit. The French ruled for a dynasty, and suddenly French became the language of the upper class. They gave us, generally speaking, the wacky, unnecessarily long words that duplicated the existing English ones. From French we have ‘assist’ alongside the old Germanic ‘help’, ‘monarch’ alongside ‘king’ … The food words are the most telling. Germanic peasants grensheep, cows, pigs but their lords ate mutton, beef and pork. I think that’s where English plurals came from also – the way we tack “s” on the end of words. I think. ‘Excuse my French’ jokes aside, don’t worry, the healthy peasantish words ‘piss’, ‘shit’ and ‘fuck’ are all old Germanic words. Just ask a German. I seem to recall that ‘cunt’ comes from French, though. Did you guys know those words yet?

Now, let’s just skip over the details of how a ‘standard’ English evolved from all the different dialects; that can come next week. Because next up, the crux. The English started invading everyone else. The era of colonialism rolled around, and they had a sticky finger in every continental honey pot. English stole needed words from native Americans, both north and south, from its own distant, distant cousin Hindu (pajama), and from other Indian languages, from Chinese languages, from Malay ones, from Arabic, from Russian, from Aboriginal Australian languages, from bloody everyone. In trade they left everyone everywhere talking English back at them. This was the time that English became a global language, although it took America becoming the global superpower to finally put paid to the rival French.
So in answer to the original question, I think we can explain English’s importance like this: a violent people, invaded a few too many times, have inflicted the linguistic legacy of their multiple defeats in revenge upon everyone else.”

I look around the classroom. I lost them at sentence number one. They’re waiting for ringtones. That’s ok, I want to sleep. I’ve missed my bus out of Indonesia for this class and they don’t care. I want them to be buying me flowers in tearful thanks for being fluent in my own native language, but the odds are slim.

“Very interesting, Mr Dan,” says the teacher, “now would you please tell the class why English is useful in the banking sector?”

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