From an HSBC ad at the Paris, France airport: “There are five times as many people learning English in China than there are people in England.”
In this season of Christmas, the foregoing observation brought consideration of the following passage, often sung during this time to some of the most magnificent music ever composed.
“Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned …. The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain: And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed…. The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shine. For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 40: 1-5; 9:2, 6)
These words from the King James Version of the Bible, set to music by George Frederick Handel in his great oratorio Messiah, have captured the imagination of countless believers and unbelievers since. Regardless of its theological authority or faithfulness to the original Biblical language, the KJV is a masterwork of the English language, and very nearly its apotheosis. It was translated and composed by a group of some forty scholars commissioned by James I of England between 1604 and 1611. Their story is recounted in God’s Secretaries by Adam Nicolson (2003) and The King James Bible: The Book That Changed the World, a made for TV film directed by Gillian Bancroft (BBC, available on DVD).
The English language, which originated on a small, not particularly hospitable island has essentially conquered the linguistic earth, and the words and sentences crafted by “God’s Secretaries” as well as Williams Shakespeare, William Faulkner, and all the speakers and writers between, are no small reason why. Other languages may be as expressive in their own sphere, but how many have the same inventiveness of expression let alone the sheer volume of words? We all get our quota of yuks from reading instructions that come with Japanese, for example, manufactured products. The diction is not odd because the writers are less than fluent in English; what is written usually is literally correct. It is because there are so many synonyms and different shades of meaning in English words and allusions that the foreign writers cannot possibly be familiar with all of them without having lived and used our language on a constant basis. Linguistic chauvinists such as the French, whence this word was derived, have seen their tongue slide from the international language of culture and diplomacy to more-or-less provincial status. English, on the other hand, has had no compunction about coining a word as well as borrowing one and then claiming the word as the language’s own. The expression of nuance and subtle difference is, according to linguists, unmatched in English in its universality.
There is no question that the British Empire was responsible for the propagation of English throughout the world, but that Empire has been gone for a half century. In an economic sense, if not in a political one, it was replaced by the United States, whose language is English. Another nation that is an upcoming economic power player is India, whose language is English. Yes, there are those who will take issue with this last statement. India has several “official” languages, but the only one that is widely understood and almost exclusively used by the educated and commercial populace in their occupations and professions is English. Without English, polyglot India would be ungovernable and would have fragmented long ago. It actually did upon independence, along religious lines, mainly, but also linguistic. Pakistan, essentially a bastard country, has been propped up by the United States for geopolitical reasons. I am not ignoring China, but the opening observation in this essay makes my case in that regard.
Speaking of language chauvinism, we have today in the United States those who fear that the immigration, much of it illegal, from Spanish speaking countries to our south somehow threatens our culture, which means our values, and threatens to Balkanize our nation. Comfort to ye my people, it is not going to happen. We have had polyglot immigration before. After the Constitution was drafted, and before ratification, Pennsylvania required that the proposed draft be published in German as well as English. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, immigrants came in droves from southern and eastern Europe, and many came from east Asia. All of these people brought their languages and formed their own communities, both rural and urban. Most adults clung to their native language, at least within those communities. But their children didn’t, and their grandchildren learned not a word of the “old country” language. Their great-grandchildren married descendants of other immigrant groups who had no language other than English. Furthermore, in my visits to Europe, I found that nearly everyone speaks English, except in France, where, I have heard, they can but won’t unless absolutely necessary. French linguistic chauvinism dies hard, I suppose. Except, perhaps at the Paris airport where the air traffic controllers speak English to pilots of Air France airplanes.
Which brings me to my final observation. Most of we Americans would not understand one or more of the following phrases, while there is little doubt that a native speaker in their own country would understand the English equivalent.
¡Feliz Navidad (If you live in Texas and don’t know what this means, you reside in a cave.)
In other words, Merry Christmas (to all and to all a good night.)
P.S. By the way, Mr. Scott Cantrell, the music critic of our Dallas Morning News, informs us that “saith” is correctly pronounced “seth.” Who knew?