Felipe Fernández-Armesto: Parlez-vous Anglais?

Foreign flavours enrich the English tongue, says Felipe Fernández-Armesto

February 5, 2015

Do you sense the je ne sais quoi of a tête-à-tête with an au pair over hors d’oeuvres à la carte? That’s amore. Or have you enough chutzpah to be in flagrante delicto with a demi-mondaine from café society in a chambre séparée? If you’re au fait with the repertoire of opera buffa, you may prefer to be à deux with a diva in a hotel de luxe. Or it might flatter your amour propre to take your siesta with a bint or a houri in the gemütlich salon of your dacha. When it comes to cherchez la femme, chacun à son goût, or, as the French say, de gustibus non est disputandum. Vive le sport!

A reader – some call them fans or aficionados – wrote to tell me that he started to count the number of foreign words and phrases in my latest book, but gave up at page 17. He was, I suppose, à la page. What beat him, I guess, was the difficulty of distinguishing thoroughly naturalised terms from those that still have a timbre – or should I say timbre? – of the exotic. For English has always been remarkably hospitable to foreign – dare I say it? – parlance, just as most English-speakers used to be hospitable to foreign people. Now both these admirable features of Englishness are under threat.

Monoglot nationalism keeps pace with the politicians who prepare for the forthcoming elections by ganging up on Johnny Foreigner

One of the reasons I like writing in English is because of its openness to importations from other languages. Spanish and French, for example – in which I also write articles or give lectures – are far more fastidious. As a result, writers of English can achieve more nuances of tone, more gradations of resonance, more associations with feelings and contexts. Not only does receptivity to linguistic immigration enrich the language, it also tells you truths about the English. Their tongue, as every schoolboy knows, is peculiarly rich in synonyms. Three terms, for instance, denote a violent intervention in or takeover of politics, but all of them – coup d’état, pronunciamento and putsch – are borrowed from abroad. The reason, I suspect, is that the English like to think of political militarisation as an exclusively alien vice. Similarly, a lot of terms that are naturalised or undergoing naturalisation are, as my opening paragraph implies, about sex, which the British, of course, locate beyond Calais. I cannot help but notice how many originally Spanish words in English denote pleasures and perils unbecoming to Anglo-Saxon attitudes: fiesta, siesta, gala, mañana, vino, guerrilla, charlatan. No wonder laissez-faire seems more disreputable to some English politicians than a bit of parlez-vous. The endearing insularity is deceptive: the fact that English people learned and liked these words is evidence of their former open-mindedness. True civilisations have the confidence to appropriate culture, as Rome did from Greece, or Japan and Korea from China, or Egypt from the Arabs.

When Britain joined what became the European Union, I expected English to enlarge. For a while, one noticed the effect. Advertisements acquainted television audiences with the advantages of Vorsprung durch Technik, or the thrill of auto emoción. Football commentators are notoriously dim: I have to switch off the volume when I watch a match on television because I cannot bear to hear them mangle foreign names. (You would have thought that Roberto Martínez had spent so long in Britain that fellow professionals would stress the second syllable of his surname, or that they would by now have stopped speaking of Ruud Gullit as if they wished to allude to an indecently employed throat.) But even the soccer pundits or mavens or savants or cognoscenti began speaking of the Bundesliga and the Eredivisie. Tapas and meze arrived. Nestlé restored the accent to its products’ labels in British markets.

Now, however, the EU effect seems to be wearing off. Sub-editors at a supposedly learned periodical have told me that I must not use the word aggiornamento, even in reference to the Church, and have substituted in its place the relatively colourless “modernisation”. Denis MacShane seems to have incurred almost as much obloquy or incomprehension for proclaiming “Quelle surprise!” – a favourite irony of, let us say, the bourgeoisie – as for fiddling his expenses. Fellow-worshippers at my church in Chipping Norton cannot say the paternoster in Latin. I suppress my spellcheck software because of its general illiteracy, but also because it excises linguistic intrusions with more vigilance than the Académie française exerts against anglicisms. Monoglot nationalism keeps pace with the politicians who prepare for the forthcoming UK general election by ganging up on Johnny Foreigner. Quelle surprise! O tempora, o mores!

This is an educational issue. Max Beerbohm said that if he could not find what I am tempted to call the mot juste in English, he would filch a word from Latin or French. He could rely on readers to be unfazed. I cannot – or the sub-editors won’t allow me to, convinced that their readers are too narrow-minded and too narrowly schooled to welcome an unfamiliar word, or to infer its meaning from context. If universities cannot or will not restore language requirements for matriculation, then they can surely encourage a culture of pluralism in the use of language and of openness to influence from all the languages of the world, just as they properly promote acceptance of all the dialects and accents of English. Nihil humanum alienum puto. Pretentious? Moi?

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