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Sep 2007 Journal

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(Some) English spoken here

Anybody who speaks English is playing on the Stradivarius among languages. We refugees are fortunate to have access to this precious instrument, but of course we don’t all play it equally well.

Basic English is dead easy: you may ignore gender, conjugation is minimal, syntax stretches like a rubber band. No wonder English has become the language in which Greek pilots speak to Nigerian air-traffic controllers; I suspect the German Pope addresses God in English when Latin lacks the mot juste.

But the Stradivarius factor also means that there are subtle overtones, rich harmonics, grace notes and trills - not to mention the opportunity of double-stopping with blunt Anglo-Saxon and crafty Norman.

English is really two languages. You can say ‘I go home’ and it carries the German surtitles ‘Ich geh’ heim’, or you can say ‘I return to my residence’ and most Frenchmen will understand ‘je retourne à ma résidence.’

By mixing and matching, one can convey so much more than in a mono-rail tongue. English is, in fact, an elaborate code, designed to confuse interlopers and enable small groups of natives to identify and despise one another.

So how are we, the original incomers, doing? The strongest correlation is the obvious one, between age on arrival and how we sound - unless you are Hungarian, in which case all bets are off.

It is useful to distinguish five levels of accomplishment:

Level One, Basic English, enabling one to scrape by, is within reach of everyone.
At Level Two we are in football managers’ territory. We know what we want to say, we think we are saying it; the trouble is the other person may not get it. That’s why Sir Alex Ferguson uses his Spanish assistant to communicate in English.

Level Three is where most of us are at: fluent, confident, and ready occasionally to dip into idiom, jargon, or slang. Waiting to ambush us are a myriad booby traps and the solecisms of the over-eager. Some of the best refugee malapropisms are based on literal translation, such as the wife telling the conductor that ‘The Lord above will pay’ when she means that her husband on the upper deck will take care of her bus fare. He, longing for a son and heir, gets ever more desperate: ‘She is inconceivable’, he cries. ‘Unbearable, utterly impregnable.’

Level Four provides the great illusion. We’ve cracked it, we believe. We certainly speak better English than most of the people you hear on television or in the supermarket. Oh yeah? ‘Where do you come from?’ is the first question asked by the plumber who’s come to replace a washer and can barely string two sentences together. ‘Been in this country long?’ If you are tempted to say: ‘Yes, mate, some 60-odd years’, you expose the tragedy at the heart of our very existence. You may speak the language like a scholar, but you sound as if you’ve just come off the boat. Listen to yourself on a tape recorder and you will hear the awful truth: the gap between a command of the language and a proper English accent. Think of poor Arthur Koestler: a master of English, but when he opened his mouth all the bats he brought with him from Budapest flew out.

Level Five, producing the perfect sound on the perfect instrument, is attained by very few, and perhaps this is just as well since those few tend to become linguistic zealots, grammarians, punctuationists, relentless in their contempt for those who cannot tell their who’s from their whom’s.

In fact, with the spoken language changing by the day, the unsolicited guardians of the Queen’s English will be a dwindling handful of refugees who want to hold on to what they have so laboriously acquired and keep it in the deep-freeze. As for the rest of us, as we grow old, our hold on English gets less secure, while our native tongues no longer provide a safe fall-back. I can see myself having to bark, bark against the dying of the light.
Victor Ross

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