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Ignorance about language leaves me lost for words

Black Lives Matter placard alongside the American flag - Credit: PA

Not knowing other languages is one thing. Not knowing about them is quite another, says PETER TRUDGILL.

I once happened to be visiting the linguistics department of a well-known university in the American Midwest when a phone call came in from the local police station. An officer enquired: “Do you have anyone there who can speak African?” It seemed that the police had arrested a man who they believed to have come from Africa, and were having trouble communicating with him. 

There is no need to tell readers of The New European that there is no such language as ‘African’. And our internationally-minded readership will not be much surprised to learn that there are about 2,000 different languages spoken on the African continent. This fundamental fact had clearly not made it onto the curriculum of that particular Midwestern school system. 

Another report which came to me from the USA told of a woman somewhere in the American south-west who was standing in a supermarket talking on her mobile phone in a language which was not English. A white man turned to her and complained: “You’re in America now – you need to speak English! If you want to speak Mexican, go back to Mexico!”. The woman replied: “Sir, I was speaking Navajo. If you want to speak English, go back to England!” 

There is, of course, no such language as ‘Mexican’. But Navajo is one of around 250 Native American languages which were spoken in what is now the USA for many millennia before the arrival of any European language.

Ignorance about language is by no means confined to the USA. On January 26 some years ago, a woman called Elizabeth Close – a well-known artist – was talking on the street in Adelaide, South Australia, to her small child in her native language, Pitjantjatjara. The homeland of the Pitjantjatjara-speaking people covers a vast area of the Central Australian desert which extends across South Australia, the Northern Territory, and Western Australia. Unlike most Australian aboriginal languages, Pitjantjatjara is surviving quite well and has about 4,000 speakers. It was reported in the Australian press that a young white woman overheard Elizabeth talking to her child in their mother tongue and shouted at her: “It’s Australia Day! We speak English in Australia!”.

The English language arrived in Australia about 230 years ago. Pitjantjatjara and the other 250 or so Australian aboriginal languages have been spoken in Australia for tens of thousands of years. There is nothing very Australian about English, but everything about Pitjantjatjara is – it is a truly Australian language. The young white woman, as well as being guilty of crass racism, was also guilty of gross ignorance.

It would be nice to be able to claim that there is less ignorance about language here in Britain, but sadly we cannot do that. It is embarrassing to report that the polyglot Alex Rawlings, when he was being interviewed on Sky News on the occasion of this year’s UNESCO International Mother Tongue Day, was asked by the presenter if Welsh was “the world’s most useless language”.

The PR department of the chocolate bar company Snickers once compared the Welsh language to “someone sitting on a keyboard”. Rod Liddle, an associate editor of the Spectator, wrote that the Welsh language is “indecipherable, with no real vowels”. And, writing in the Daily Mail, the journalist and writer Roger Lewis called Welsh an “appalling, moribund monkey language”. Anyone who can write something as horribly ignorant as that about one of our national languages is in need of some linguistic education.

In fact, there is a very good case to be made for arguing that everybody should take at least one course on language and linguistics at some stage during their education. Learning about language and languages is as important as actually learning languages themselves. Ignorance about language is rarely quite as astonishing as it was in that American police station, but it can often be much more bigoted, malicious and damaging.