Tuesday, 25 November 2008

English Bashing

It is only here in Greece that we native speakers experience what might be called English bashing? Perhaps the Greeks are unusual. They certainly think they are unusual - a sort of chosen people - and the sign of their being chosen is their language. What a superior language Greek is, we are told again and again. Certainly so in comparison to English. Of course virtually everyone wants to learn English, and most of the time there is no sign of resentment, but when, over a lingering coffee on a pavement outside a café in the sun somewhere, the two languages are put side by side it seems that it really is hard to exaggerate the inferiority of English. One hears of the sheer magnitude of the Greek lexicon and if the conversation is conducted in English and a word like "lexicon" is used, there is yet more evidence for the claim that English is at least one third Greek - the speakers of Albion obviously borrowing from the children of Alexander and Aristotle because their own language - little more than a stringing together of incoherent grunts, apparently - just did not have the resources to say what needed to be said as they learnt to do more than hunt, reproduce and hit each other over the head with clubs.

The best bit of English bashing is when Greek is said to be the only language that does not (contrary to Saussure) have an arbitrary relationship to what it denotes. Only Greek words, it is said, convey a comprehension of what is named. "Geometry", for example, is not an arbitrary signifier since the word being composed of "geo" (earth) and "metro" (measure) explains what the activity denoted involves. English words (and for this argument you have to ignore words like "geometry" which you do find in an English dictionary but are, in a sense, not really English) are just dumb sounds like: "pap", "dog", "sod", "dig", etc The word "sod" can not be unpacked to reveal the sodness of the sod. (However, does the gap in "swimming pool" really entail that a composite word like this can have no share whatsoever in the sort of wisdom evident in a great Hellenic word like "geometry"?)

It is the duty of anyone in the language business in Greece to sit through this kind of conversation on a fairly regular basis. It doesn't do to get worked up. Of course one never came here believing that one was an ambassador for a language that could claim to be superior. English is not an international language because of its inherent qualities. But it is a bit wearing and eventually one starts to feel that maybe there is a tiny grain of truth in all this and there is something lacking in English. There is (or so it seems) an enviable homogeneity to Greek. It is all so Greek, whereas English is such a melange. How much of English really is English? Not so much it seems.

However, rather than get apologetic about this motley, magpie language, why not see the mish-mashiness of it as a plus? The English language is so open to the foreign, to the Other. The English are quick to recognise the genius of others when they see it. What a great language in which to celebrate the cultural plurality of modern society.