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Loose lips sink the
 English language

French intellectuals have long been plagued by fears that foreign (for which read ‘American’) influences are radically and irrevocably reshaping the French language and culture.

fast foodJudging by growing French predilections for spending ‘le weekend par le mer’ where they munch on ‘les hotdogs et les hamburgers’, their fears are far from baseless.

Frankly, I doubt that escargots, cassoulet de Toulouse and tripes à la mode will ever be muscled off the menu by the Big Mac. A leisurely meal prepared by a good French cook is one of the world’s great pleasures.

But when it comes to fast food, America is unsurpassed. And like or not, it is a fact of life the world over that our 21st–century work habits mean that fast food has become a staple of our existence.

America’s dominance of this culinary form was explained to me some 30 years ago … and by a fastidious Parisian friend, no less.

‘Do you know the difference between American fast food and fast food everywhere else in the world?’ he asked rhetorically.

‘American fast food tastes good,’ he went on to declare.

Language works the same way as food. Many American expressions—‘weekend’, ‘rock & roll’, ‘okay’, and ‘cool’, for example—hit the nail on the head in a uniquely succinct way, which explains why they have been so readily incorporated into other languages. It’s a natural enrichment process. Languages have always grown this way.

Indeed, with ‘small’ languages, such as those of Scandinavia, communication on a wide variety of subjects would be difficult were it not for the use of a large number words borrowed from other languages, especially German, French, and English.

Even in the case of languages like English that have positively enormous vocabularies, words are frequently borrowed from other tongues—sometimes with decidedly humorous results.

Here in America, for example, the German superlative ausgezeichnet meaning ‘excellent’ (literally ‘written out’) has been transmogrified into the expression ‘outtasight’, probably by GIs stationed in Germany after World War II. Mistranslation it might be, but it perfectly reflects the meaning of ausgezeighnet.

By contrast, it is utterly irritating to find so many people these days labouring under the misapprehension that two perfectly good English words ‘herb’ and ‘homage’ have been borrowed from the French. At least I assume they do so, because so many folk pronounce them with a dropped aspirate—’erb and ’omaaarge. Yuck!

‘Herb’ and ‘homage’ have been part of the English language since it came into being in the Middle Ages. ‘Herb’ is pronounced the way it is spelled. ‘Homage’ more or less rhymes with ‘cabbage’.

Sure, the two words originally arrived in England with the Normans, but we don’t pronounce other words derived from the Normans—‘pork’ and ‘beef’ for instance—with a French accent, so why do so with ‘herb’ and ‘homage’? It’s pure affectation. Drop it!

That said, there’s no reason to get ‘uptight’ [a truly wonderful American expression rapidly spreading to other tongues] about the incorporation of foreign words into our language. However another kind of invasion does, to my mind, give cause for concern.

It is the way in which our daily speech is being increasingly infected by print and broadcast media jargon. The appalling misuse of the word ‘major’ is a prime example.

The abuse of this unfortunate word has been introduced to our daily vocabulary by headline writers desperate to find a word with a smaller letter count than ‘serious’ and with greater gravitas than ‘big’. All literate people should eschew it.

The reason for this unhappy development is, I suspect, that the news media are for many our primary contact with the written and spoken word. Not surprisingly, we unconsciously adopt their speech and literary patterns.

As a consequence, utilitarianism in speech and writing has come to be regarded as a virtue. Adjectives and adverbs are brutally excised on grounds of redundancy, figures of speech are condemned as clichés, and subtleties of language are dismissed as circumlocutions.

This helps explain the tedium of so many movies and television shows, the dismal state of poetry as an art form, the excruciating dullness of pot-boiler novels, the abysmal level of debate in our legislative chambers, and the banality of most modern liturgy.

This is not to say that well-written plays, books, movies, poetry, and liturgy have disappeared altogether. They haven’t. But they are certainly far more rare than in times past. And audiences for them are shrinking.

Maybe it’s time we concentrated a fraction of the energy we devote to narrowing our beams to broadening to our spiritual and cultural horizons. For if trends continue, we’ll eventually be reduced to communicating in grunts and wheezes! GPH✠

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