JOHN’S JOURNAL: NOT LOST FOR WORDS John Burke confronts linguistic difficulties abroad
“Your have tried to learn too many languages”. The accuser was the Venetian agent for Global Tours, as I gabbled to him in an inadvertent mixture of Italian and Spanish.
My excuse was that, as I was guiding holidaymakers around Europe, a smattering of several languages was far more useful than an MA in French, enabling one to quote Gide, discuss Stendhal or criticise Molière – after watching a performance of Les Femmes Savantes at the Comédie Française.
The most hilarious time that this incident was repeated came during email exchanges with São Paulo’s tourism manageress. Not only was my Portuguese peppered with Spanish and Italian, but the Italian-born Paulista at the other end was almost into the same lingua franca.
Besides, whatever language(s) one has learnt academically, they will not do for the greater part of humanity on most of the world’s surface, and the last hope is that some locals will know English or French. Yet even Spanish is useless for Indians in Peru’s uplands or jungle, and some Hungarian peasants needed a puffer-train drawn in my notebook to point the road to Esztergom’s station.
The human race speaks a total of 7,000 tongues, so even learning 0.2% of them is merely making a start. That feat was achieved by one Zaid Fattah – a Brazilian born in Liberia and raised in Lebanon – whom the Guinness World Records lists as speaking 58. The head of the onetime Rumanian service of the BBC had mastered 38.
A different approach is taken by Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary. Addressing schoolchildren in London, he claimed that a Classics degree from Oxford, enabled him to read newspapers in Rome, Paris, Madrid, Lisbon and Athens. The Evening Standard’s gossip-column noted, thanks to me, his omission of Bucharest, but Latin or Greek do help to give the gist of texts in at least 30 countries.
For the ordinary tourist the main thing is basic communication and courtesy – as well as keeping out of trouble. Learning the local signs for DANGER and ACCESS FORBIDDEN plus NO PHOTOGRAPHS may prolong your life longer than mouthing tay or cha to get the cup that cheers and knowing that bread is pain pan pane pão or brood Brot brød bröd …
Never start with “Do you speak English?” – in English, since it is easy to learn half a dozen key words like ‘please’ .. ‘thank-you’ … ‘good morning’ … Only then do you go into parlayvoo.
While taking tourists to Athens or Istanbul, my apparent fluency doubtless convinced them that I was a Classicist or Orientalist. But the temporary talk was all out of Greek and Turkish pocket-dictionaries and phrasebooks – mainly the hotel and restaurant sections. Use it, then lose it!
On becoming a financial journalist covering Continental markets, the only words needed from my old career were numbers – multiplied by mille or Millionenen. My new vocabulary ranged from jaarverslag (annual report) to chiffre d’affaires (turnover) and from Rückversicherung (reinsurance) to emisión de acciones (rights issue).
Incidentally, an Italian vermouth was nicknamed Punt e Mes by brokers on the Milan bourse where a stock might move by a “poin’ an’ ‘arf”.
For obvious reasons, I know the word for journalist in several languages, including sahafi in Arabic, while the equivalent of URGENT is vital when emailing tourist boards and PR agencies. I have also picked up a few expressions to convince the locals of my intimate knowledge. Quebeckers, whose forebears travelled by river, do not monter an automobile, they embarquer, and the Gallic equivalent of from Lands End to John o’ Groats is de France et de Navarre.
French kings once
Germans call the professional touch Fingerspitzengefühl, while vrai de vrai is the French equivalent of pukkah. Poles are always impressed with sławny w kraju za granicą (famous at home and abroad). Various travels have cluttered up my memory with random words and phrases, including dialect.
An old one is ‘ki buçuk, which was what taxi-drivers called out in Istanbul just like a Cockney saying “tuppence ha’penny”. Berliners’ is joot means okeydoke, while j’sais pas, pronounced shay pah, is dunno in Parisian slang.
More useful is Oifig an Phoist the sign you look for in an Irish town if you want to buy stamps and post letters. Another is mørketid which is polar darkness, as listed among the meteorological data in Norwegian newspapers. Running close to that is joulupukki which is the Finnish for Father Christmas whom I actually met at Rovaniemi under the midnight sun.
Indispensable at Brazil coach-stations is janela because if you want a window-seat, make sure it will not get the sun, especially from the north. On the Athens underground, I would listen for my station a short walk from Holiday Inn: “Επόμενος στάσις, Εβαγγελισμός” … “Next stop, Annunciation.”
My only word in Cantonese is Dei ha which means ground-floor – that was for the lift-man in Hong Kong. I have done better in Japanese, thanks to being at school with the then ambassador’s son: Watakushiwa nihongo-no hanasemasu. (I can speak Japanese.)
Note, however, this cautionary tale in From Russia With Love when the Turkish agent is about to ambush an opponent. He tells James Bond to wait out of sight, and if a policeman appears, to explain he is with the good guys: “Ben Bey Kerim’in ortayagin”. But 007 warns Kerim that a fluent one-liner will bring a torrent of Turkish that he cannot answer.