So many tongues, so many ways to offend

Talking for Britain - C U Next Tuesday - The Meaning of Tingo and Other Extraordinary Words from around the World

October 6, 2006

A lot has been said in recent years about the emergence of English as a world language. Books on English and where it comes from now appear on most publishers' lists. It is not surprising, therefore, that the public should be taking a more general interest in the changes that are going on closer to home. Radio in particular has been the medium to take on the challenge of tracking English as it is found all over the British Isles.

Simon Elmes produced the Radio 4 programme Word of Mouth for more than a decade, as well as the award-winning Routes of English (which ran to 26 episodes, and the eponymous book to accompany the series came out in four volumes).

Talking for Britain is the outcome of the BBC's nationwide Voices survey, based on the Word4Word series that went out on Radio 4 last year - and that collected no fewer than 620,000 words from listeners. The book covers the UK by regions and looks in detail at the way in which English is used and how it has changed within living memory.

Each section comes with a glossary of local terms. For those who are concerned with the death of language (or "linguicide", as some would say), it is perhaps disconcerting to see that there is a constant process of loss and renewal even within the English shires: archaic forms are recognised in Cumbria, but no longer used.

The spread of Estuary English across southern England is offset by the growing influence of Glasgow across the lowlands of Scotland. Gaelic is to be found in smaller and smaller enclaves, although a software firm in Aberdeen has produced a program to translate business reports into Doric.

All of this makes the book an interesting browse (and it would have been better with an accompanying CD, although the Word4 Word programmes can still be found on the BBC website). A concluding chapter drawing all the findings together would also have been welcome, but then that is perhaps the point: these changes in the language are constant and going on around us all the time.

Equally common, but perhaps more unsung, is the use of bad language (what Derbyshire miners apparently refer to as "The Old Hundred"). C U Next Tuesday: A Good Look at Bad Language focuses more on a "dirty dozen" oaths hewn from a rich seam in Australia. Swearing is a curious item in the broad range of communication strategies available to people and one that has perhaps not been scrutinised as much as it could have been. The subject was admirably covered by Eric Partridge, whose Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English first appeared in 1937 with its roots in studies of soldiers' language in the First World War.

Dr Johnson, of course, opted to leave vulgarisms out of his great work completely and when upbraided for not including them squashed his critic by replying: "So! You have been looking for them, Madam." In today's world, the impact of the f-word has been largely replaced by the shock value attached to the n-word (nigger), and political correctness creates perplexing situations. Recent examples include Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London, being accused of making anti-Semitic remarks, and a police officer who faced disciplinary action for referring in a private conversation to a habitual criminal as "pond life".

Colloquial language is as subject to rules of grammar as anything else, and it can be categorised in a number of ways. For example, words may not be taboo in themselves, and they need to be offensive in intent to break a taboo, to cause shock and preferably create an unpleasant image if they are to have impact. The actual sound created is another factor, which leads into euphemism (a subject that could have been dealt with in more detail here) ranging from phrases that are in some way contracted or modified (but still recognisable) to Cockney rhyming slang, which has spread well beyond the audible range of Bow Bells.

The social context of swearing and why it should be seen as "bad" language develops into some quite unusual areas. The aggressive style of modern rap breaks taboos deliberately, so particular expressions will spread from the underground language of excluded groups in New York to young people as far away as Nigeria. The element of defiance in bad language has very long roots: the use of good old Anglo-Saxon words when flyting (engaging in a rhetorical battle of wits) can apparently be traced back to, well, the Anglo-Saxons. And ritualised slanging matches have been found in societies worldwide ever since, although they have yet to figure in an episode of Home and Away .

More could have been said about social contexts, ranging from the swear box in the office to the strict regulations of puritanical societies, both of which indicate that bad or foul language can cause upset as well as anger.

In the UK today, for example, notices about verbal abuse (and the quite severe penalties that can back them) are to be found at most sites where an organisation's members have to deal with the Great British Public, such as doctors' surgeries and railway stations. Even if a more tolerant attitude exists towards swearing in the media, it seems to be less acceptable on radio and television than it does in the press.

The response to bad language in different cultures is intriguing. Some cultures that pride themselves on courtesy (such as the Japanese) will claim that swear words do not exist in their language or that people just do not talk to each other like that. Closer scrutiny, however, suggests otherwise.

The Meaning of Tingo is a wonderful contribution to that ever-growing range of publications that highlight the absurdities of language and the endless variations to be found in the 6,800 languages that still survive. No fewer than 280 have been trawled for this collection, supplying us with different words for "moustache" in Albania, which does at least contribute something to that endless debate about the number of words the Eskimos have for snow (listed on page 166).

The Meaning of Tingo should be compulsory reading for anyone who thinks that languages are boring. How else would they discover that a pogo stick in Danish is a kaengurustilte ("kangaroo stilts"), or that a single word (in Tulu) can have quite opposite meanings. This book gives examples of words that are either all vowels or all consonants and offers notes on the whistled languages of Gomera and Oaxaca. There is even a selection of the longest words in the world, although oddly enough " Donaudampfschifffahrtsgesellschaftskapitan " ("Danube steamship company captain") has somehow been overlooked.

Some words say it all ( ichigo-ichie , "treasuring every moment and trying to make it perfect" in Japanese), while others provide insights into daily life, such as how to sneeze politely in Arabic. Human experience is highlighted with useful terms such as ilunga (the Tshiluba for "someone who is ready to forgive any abuse the first time, to tolerate it a second time, but never a third time").

As the Czechs say, it's all a Spanish village to me.

Tim Connell is professor of languages for the professions, City University.

Talking for Britain: A Journey through the Voices of a Nation

Author - Simon Elmes
Publisher - Penguin
Pages - 333
Price - £8.99
ISBN - 0 14 10 9

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.