Lingua Franca

14Feb07

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One of my very favourite books is Mother Tongue by (Baron) Bill Bryson, England’s adopted Anglo-American peer who seems to turn butter into gold when it comes to churning out best-selling travelogues.

But a few years ago he published a young Einstein-type ‘Idiot’s Guide to Every Aspect of Science and Natural History You Never Knew You Wanted to .. er, Know’. Crammed it was with brilliant dinner-party/first-date nerd-speak and so factually obese was I afterwards, that I went away for a lie down, awoke and realised I couldn’t remember a solitary thing. All those wonderful facts about the millions of species yet to be discovered – gone, extinct. Oh, there was one .. The plagiarist anatomist Richard Owen first coined the term Dinosauria and was (probably) the only living person that Charles Darwin ever hated, has his bust standing on the steps directly overlooking the Brontosaurus in the Natural History Museum, the Victorian archive of stuffed wildlife that was his inspiration.

There was ‘Notes From a Small Island’, Bryson’s exploration of England and Englishness that followed in the footsteps of that other walking, paddling Anglophile Paul Theroux, whose ‘A Kingdom by the Sea’ spoke of a nation at war with sovereignty.

And then there was my favourite ‘Mother Tongue’, a journey of vocabulary borrowed, pilfered and returned to us by centuries of linguistic highwaymen like – well, Americans actually. Melvin Bragg’s terrific ‘The Adventure of English’ goes in this direction too though on a more Radio 4 level. Unfortunately, I have not seen my copy of Mother Tongue since lending it to a commercial pilot who seemed interested in my linguistic sermons. I assume he has my precious book on his dusty shelf somewhere in Phoenix, Arizona.

During the 1970s I lived in Brussels with my parents while my father worked with Ford Europe. At a time when I’m sure they were both thinking ahead towards retirement, they pulled up our Essex roots and we found ourselves in a woody village that once belonged to the colonial King Leopold’s Royal estate. For a 10 year-old English kid, desperate to learn any foreign language thrown at him, French seemed, as Rousseau might have said, the best of all possible worlds. For my parents, middle-aged survivors of D-Day (plus two days) and wartime rationing, emigrating to mainland Europe was almost like landing on the moon. At first, not only were they like our tropical fish (Neon Tetras, Guppies and Angels) that came over with the furniture in polythene bags, but they were also virtually struck dumb overnight by their lack of language. Infamously, they just got on with it and earned the respect of all at home in Blighty; within months my mother had invented a language of her own, a English/French/Flemish hybrid patois that only she and a local neighbour were party to, a little like Cold War agents passing secret code about buying fresh chicory.

I immersed myself in Tintin French: “Mille de Millions de Mille Sabords!”

That was all very well, but our local Commune was pretty proud of its Flemish culture and if any naive English wandered into the local t asking for ‘Un Campagne et trois pistolets, s’il vous plait’, chances were you’d be ignored. In fact, an assistant once dropped the freshly-sliced loaf on the floor leaving me to gather it up, fleeing before she took the carving knife to my tail. Though Flemish wasn’t on the National Cirriculum, I did pick up a fair bit from subtitled British comedy like Dad’s Army (‘Daar Komen de Schutters’) on BRT, the Flemish TV channel.

Eight years later we returned to the UK, my parents to retire and me left to discover if there was anything new-European about the country of my birth that had joined the Common Market during our absence. I’d had my first Cappuccino in Il Duce’s Milan Terminii in about 1975 and yet this gloriously addictive froth wasn’t to be found anywhere in the England I was hoping to conquer. Instead, there was Nescafé instant coffee or a chemical sludge called Camp which pictured a rather gay-looking Major in kilt and moustache, sitting astride his drum with a man servant in attendance (probably relishing an independent India from these jolly rotten British). Britain was as European then as the US is today – in fact, we even used a French word – entrepreneur.

Yesterday we ventured into town, walked up The Strand and across Trafalgar Square passing four Starbucks, three Pret A Mangers, a Coffee Republic, a Cafe Nero plus various other retailers dedicated to fly-trapping the tourist with words like Macchiato and Espresso. Oh how Italians and French visitors to the UK must be utterly bemused by this in-breeding of the cocoa product that has been evolving here over the last 30 years. As you can see, even the once-turgid Nescafé has grown into Dolce Gusto. After a book event at which I was appearing, we sat in Pret (or Prêt, as they say in France). I also thought of how words like that have become part of London’s lunch-break vernacular and the first and last time I ever had an English muffin, in America. I thought then about how we are neglecting our linguistic heritage, clueless from where our everyday words derive and how few of the English actually speak anything other than their mother tongue.

Then, to seize the moment we went looking for tacky red rose cards.

Jour heureux de valentines!

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6 Responses to “Lingua Franca”

  1. Som vi säger i Sverige Alla Hjärtans Dag är bara en kommersiell pryl för att sno dina stålar. Ska du älska någon så visa det varje dag och inte bara på alla hjärtans dag…

  2. Och vi också har en ordstav i Engelsk , så pass en besätta er icke en besätta till han kanna hoppa från en sauna in i Arktis snö och stilla har en hård – på.

  3. cappuccino salad? no thankyou.

  4. 4 Jardini

    Great post, I love aquariums 🙂

  5. Thank you Jardini, always nice to hear positive feedback.
    Aquariums or is that aquaria? Anyway, I gather you mean the fish aquarium and not the Pret a Manger gold fish bowl!


  1. 1 Renaissance « England’s Pleasant Pastures

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