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LANGUAGES: The language battles



Let the best man win, let the best language win. I grew up in a society in which speaking French was a proof of education. One proved this by putting a soupçon of French io your English. Spanish? Sniff and curl your lip. French was the language of diplomacy. How things have changed! The UN has two official languages, English and French, but now even the French ask bitterly if French is a dead language. The New York Times reports on a new UN guide which gives the language preferences of delegations: 120 chose English, 40 listed French, and 20 listed Spanish. In business, preference for English is almost universal.

Did the best languages win? Mary Huyck rebuked me for confusing Colombia and Columbia in these postings. I replied that they sound alike. Too bad, she replies, implicitly strengthening the case for EuroEnglish: "Re the pronunciation of Columbia vs. Colombia -- in English it is the same. Easy. Different, I suppose, in Spanish. English can certainly be a peculiar language. I suppose you saw the findings mentioned in the press last week that learning disabilities are much more common among English speakers than among Italians, presumably because Italian is very regular and consistently spelled and pronounced. I think that English must be the dickens for foreigners to try to learn. There seem to be more exceptions to the rule than there are rules."

As for learning difficulties, the fact is that English is peppered with "uh", "you know", "um", "eh" etc., so much so that on the table where the WAIS TV interviews are conducted there is a sign asking the inteerviewees to avoid them. In Spanish there is nothing like this. Moreover, Spanish-speakers open their mouths more and in most areas speak with admirable clarity. Spanish is supreme in this regard. When listening for esample to the speeches in yesterday's presidential elections in Peru, it was evident that the speakers and the audience were so carried away by the music of their voices that content meant little. The best orator, APRA candidate Alan García, said he was not a university professor but an orator who moves the masses. As the Spaniards say "habla bonite". The speeches of all dandidates had little substantial content. English speakers on the other hand speak badly in part because they are not carried away by the sound of their voices.

That leaves the question of the linguistic chaos in Europe. It is the result of political chaos. When I grew up there, the wars among the major powers were given an epic quality, whereas the Balkans were victims of balkanisation. Now, from California; I view Europe as the Balkans writ large, with the corresponding linguistic chaos. Thank heavens for the present debalkanization. the Americas are lucky to have just three major languages.

The mentality of the European promoters of regions of their languages often sound silly and childish. On TV yesterday Georgie Anne Geyer was interviewed. She is a highly respected journalist with a vast knowledge of the world, having visited some 140 countries. Of part-Polish ancestry, she has made a special study of the Balkans, about which she writes with factual impartiality. In the question period a Serbian woman attacked her grossly and at length in a shrill voice, completely distorting the facts. Geyer kept he calm and just shook her head. Ah, Europe!

Ronald Hilton - 4/9/01


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