Thursday, January 12, 2012


There is a wonderful little poem in Roald Dahl's Matilda. A little boy proves he has learned to spell a four syllable word by memorizing this poem. It goes: "Mrs. D, Mrs. I, Mrs. F. F. I., Mrs. C., Mrs. U., Mrs. L. T. Y." To which Mrs. Trunchball has the delightfully barbed response: "Why are all these women married?"

I've never forgotten this poem, from the moment I first read it. There is a certain genius in its simplicity and ability to teach, the way it uses the natural necessity to remember names and patterns. It is much easier to remember a word that has two meanings, as anyone who has learned a second language can confirm; It is much harder to memorize words in the beginning when you only know how to use each one in only one situation.

When you first start to learn a new language it is unavoidable that your usage is reduced to direct subsitution. For example, when I first set out on the learning Dutch boat, I learned straight away as many of the words we shared. Like Michel Thomas' French method, the best thing to do with a new language is see how much of it you have in common. I learned that the Dutch also use the word 'pen', 'computer', 'bank'. And one day I was listening to a Dutch song about the mundanity of life, when the singer says 'hangende op de bank', which I took to mean 'hanging on the bank'. What on Earth does that mean? I asked myself. Is it a euphemism for the sort of depressive emotions that bureaucracy causes?

The Dutch, I have since discovered, also call a sofa 'een bank'. Over time I also learned that 'een bad' is a bath, 'elk' is every, and 'een broodje aap' (a monkey sandwich) is an urban legend. False friends, like these first two examples, are the bane of every second language learner, and it is easy to misappropriate them. Idioms such as the third example can make language impenetrable, sometimes even to speakers of the same language, and it may seem surprising to know that this is partially intentional.

One of the prime purposes of language is the role it plays in social cohesion. Being the primary human tool, before the computer it was the only tool that permited such a neat and complex exchange of ideas. Because humans share a common set of drives there are a number of ideas that can be exchanged with relative ease using only physical language - such as gestures. But smaller groups (countries, towns) have their own, more complex, common ground, therefore their own understandings. Where an individual will appropriate a word for their own purposes, it's use can only be relevant if there are a group of people that have a similar interpretation of the word. Which is why vocabulary in industrialised areas tends to be larger: there are more intersecting social groups, which produces more linguistic appropriations.

An extreme example of this would be the slanguage, Polari. The reason I call it slanguage is because while it was slang and retained grammatical structures from the primary language of the speakers, it took on an almost specialist vocabulary. A form of slang developed by performers and later adopted by the queer community, it was a mish-mash of vocabulary from English, back-slang, rhyming slang, Italian, circus and theatre lingo, Gypsy and Yiddish.

But then, just as much as language can be used to draw communities closer, it can equally be used as for social exclusion. The development of slang being one such example; what better way to make a group exclusive than to misappropriate words. Can teenagers think of a more effective way to develop bonds with each other while blocking out adults than by developing their own slang? Is their any other reason that legal terminology is so arcane other than to keep the profession closed? What was the purpose of Polari in queer culture before its popularisation on the radio? Why is French Verlan so widely used?

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