SPEAKING IN TONGUES

SPEAKING IN TONGUES

 

When I was a small child, I used to read with relish a battered old book that belonged to my grandfather, giving useful and necessary phrases for travellers, translated into several African languages.      I looked forward to the day when I too could insist imperially:  ‘This room has not been cleaned sufficiently.’    Or declare, ‘You are  charging too much.   I refuse to pay.’    Then there was the dramatic, ‘Has anyone with cholera slept in this bed?’    And (my personal favourite): ‘This person seems to be dead.    Kindly fetch the appropriate person in authority.’   Though I have on my travels occasionally found it expedient to enact the English memsahib, emergencies of these types have not happened to us (yet.)

 When we first visited Japan in 1997, people outside of Tokyo would stare to see a European, and travel was very difficult because there was virtually no signing in English.   This is not at all the case now which makes travelling in Japan a lot easier.

I have explained before how this family has a shameful record of incapacity in acquiring anything other than a rudimentary grasp of other languages.   Elisabeth’s fiancé, Rob, has a much more commendable thoroughness in his language studies and we tended to depend on him in any situation where English would not suffice.

When I looked at his Japanese equivalent of our ‘Janet and John’ books, lazy as I am in these matters, I’d have promptly consigned it to the ‘too difficult’ category.   For a start there is the lack of any alphabet that we recognise.   There are three different systems of characters – thousands of those (I am reminded of the chrysanthemum fancier’s  500 million).   They  use all three systems, sometimes in the same sentence.     There are only past and present tenses.   With our complexity of tense, I found restriction to only two, impossible to imagine.   Japan is a caste oriented society so there are many varieties of phrases addressing people in different relationships to yourself.    Japanese used by men and by women is quite different.   (Apparently, when the Emperor Hirohito addressed the Japanese people after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to recommend surrender, he used the language of the court and the majority of ordinary citizens did not understand him.  He described their situation as – ‘the war has developed in ways not necessarily to Japan’s advantage.’)     There are standard phrases which may mean many things and which might be employed say when concluding a transaction.    I do recall eventually becoming very irritated with a tour guide who used exactly the same phrases all the time.    When you consider the extreme shades of subtlety with which you can take your leave of someone in English, it is hard to contemplate there being one phrase to cover all eventualities.

While I was writing this I heard a good example of what I mean by this subtlety of English.   Ann Widdecombe on Andrew Marr, discussing issues of the presumed eventual succession to the throne, said of course it would be the heir apparent, there ‘was not going to be a plebiscite.’   I wondered what the difference was between plebiscite and referendum, and looked them up.    There is virtually no difference: both mean that the entire population votes on one issue.    But I suggest that in choosing the word ‘plebiscite’ with our association of common, uneducated and uninformed in the word ‘plebs’ Ms Widdecombe was subtly scornful (possibly subconsciously) of the very idea of the Great Unwashed being so bold as to have an opinion on the holy issue of Majesty.   (She probably believes in the divine right of kings.)    

To return to Japan however, everyone there speaks ‘English’ which is wholly admirable, but they have often been taught by a teacher who has never visited our islands and may therefore not be very easily understood.

Children on the other hand often understand remarkably well, and I said to a little girl of 8, dressed in her ceremonial kimono, ‘How beautiful you are.’ – thinking she would not understand but her grave face broke into a broad grin of delight and she rushed off to tell her father.

We had coffee in a French bistro in Tokyo where a sign said, Les huitres sont arrives.   Underneath it said, Fresh oysters has came.

On a boat, ‘Remember the finger thing’, was interesting to contemplate.

In general, Rob’s instruction to a taxi driver would be accepted at once, whereas Elisabeth saying exactly the same would be repeatedly queried until we decided what was actually happening was that they were saying, Are you sure you know where you’re going, Missy?

However the most annoying communication on this trip came in English, on the plane.   I hate it when the crew make prattling announcements or talks more than is necessary.   The assistant pilot was so bouncy and garrulous you felt as if ‘Roo’ was flying  the plane.   He interrupted our thoughts.   Ladies and gentlemen, we seem to have a problem with – then something took his attention and he fell briefly silent.   Problem with what, I thought.    The engine?   The fuel pump?   The landing gear?    When he continued, ‘with the Entertainment system’, I really felt quite annoyed.

You realise how the language you learn at your mother’s knee to some extent directs how you later think.   In English it may be customary for women (certainly of my generation) to swear less than men, but the whole of the subtle and complex language is at your disposal.   You are not required to define your relationship with the person you address, and you can, if you choose, be both very polite and extremely insulting at the same time.    Doubtless there are in turn subtleties in the Japanese language which are beyond our comprehension, but when I’m examining other tongues I’m always extremely grateful to be English mutter-spreche!

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