Do I speak Dutch?
How many languages do you speak? Last week Jakub Marian, ‘a Czech mathematician, linguist, and musician currently living in Germany’, blogged his guesstimate of the figure for the typical person in each European country. Expectedly, the British are near the bottom of the heap; only the Hungarians do worse. It’s debatable whether this is cause or effect of the anglosphere’s hegemony (well, perhaps not that debatable, though it’s hard not to like the theory that puts its triumph down to Britons’ refusal to learn anyone else’s lingo). The Brits bounce back, though, if the question is what percentage of a given country’s population speaks English, at around 95 per cent.
It’s a good question at what point one can claim to speak a language. When you can order a beer in it? Translate Virgil into rhyming hexameters? Marian reckons what counts is ability to hold a conversation, though again human-to-human yack stretches from the sesquipedalian to the sub-Tellytubby. At any rate, Marian’s survey has Beneluxers topping out. The average Luxembourgeois, for instance, can converse in 3.6 languages, as against just 1.6 for the Brits and Irish. (The Hungarians, with 1.5, have the excuse of speaking a Finno-Ugric language unrelated to anything outside Estonia and Finland.) If one uses the median rather than the average, Hiberno-Brits go down to 1 (though it isn't clear why, given that language mastery is scalar, Marian insists on using mostly integral values for the median).
Like everyone else’s, my effective vocabulary, English and other, smudges on in a specious present between getting and forgetting. Work means I now have to learn Dutch, having put in two years learning French in Brussels. Not that I mind. Words are for me what shoes were for Imelda Marcos. It’s not enough for them to be out there somewhere – in a dictionary, say – as, I imagine, it didn’t do it for Imelda to know that there were slingbacks and mules, pumps and brothel-creepers, espadrilles and clogs, laid up in a Dolcis warehouse. They have to be owned, tried on, worn in as part of a wider ensemble. And so it goes with Dutch. I dig it that every dozenth word or so looks like a cuss, that U kunt is actually polite Dutch, and balzak the medically correct word for ‘scrotum’. More generally, the language looks to a native English speaker like the output of a surrealists’ synod. 'U kunt op de krappe trap opgaan om de dikhuidige paardenfokker in de slaapkamer te zien' is a possible, if improbable, sentence (‘You can go up the narrow staircase to see the thick-skinned horse-breeder in the bedroom’).
But then what is language, if not a running commentary on the improbable? The primers I used when learning Russian did well on this. ‘Моя тетя поет, но мой дядя под столом’ means ‘My aunt is singing, but my uncle is under the table’: a nicely dysfunctional domestic vignette, the climax perhaps of a night with the Red Army choir on the radiogram and a rehoboam of Stolichnaya. The BBC Russian course declared that ‘Солженицын более значительный писатель, чем Энид Блайтон,’ or ‘Solzhenitsyn is a more significant writer than Enid Blyton’ – perhaps cooked up as an opening gambit for Literaturnaya Gazeta cocktail parties – which manages to sound platitudinous while quite possibly being false. And the Collins course included the borderline-deranged ‘I am not talking about blood. I am talking about a man that is lying in blood,’ doubtless aimed at would-be spooks, whom Collins clearly imagined as a cross between J.L Austin and Philip Marlowe. Let me know if you need the Russian version.
Such flatpack sentences are clearly useless, in that any possible world they might fit lies at a preposterous remove from our own. But it was a red-letter moment when another learner’s boilerplate sentence, ‘Это мой чемодан!’ (‘It’s my suitcase!’), actually came up by the luggage carousel at Domodedovo airport as I was retrieving my bag from the clutches of some FSB operative. I was primed to follow up with aperçus about my aunt’s bel canto and Noddy’s adventures in the gulag, but he strode off.