As a child I loved the Dr Dolittle books, regardless of the evil anthropomorphising that went on in them. The Voyage of Dr Dolittle was my favourite; it featured the wise duck Dab Dab, and the exotic parrot Polynesia, who flew immense distances and saw wondrous sights. (Neither was I worried about the doctor’s travels to lands unacceptably populated by natives who were either buffoons or violent thugs.)
Imagine my distress, then, when I came across Wittgenstein’s observation that ‘If a lion could talk, we would not understand him.’ But on reflection, this stands to reason. Language reflects our experience of the world, and we do not share ours with lions – they would have no words for ‘train’ or ‘taxation’, but a vast lexicon for the varying tenderness of their prey, a myriad words for subtle scents and the snap of bones.
This extends to human language, as well, of course. My mother moved to Spain in middle age and learnt Spanish to quite an advanced level. She would often ask her Spanish partner (who did not learn – or, more accurately, would not speak – English; he just enjoyed understanding more than he cracked on) ‘How do you say …?’, to which he would reply ‘Well, I just wouldn’t say that in the first place.’ This is true: can you imagine a French person ever saying the equivalent of ‘Well, I was gonna say …’ (or having the Dawsonesque bosom and curlers to accompany this utterance)?
It has been remarked that the most successful world leaders are monoglots, since to acquire another language requires at least a degree of insight into the culture of others, and this could be a weakness when you are trying to uphold the supremacy of your own nation. Current affairs bears this out: as the most powerful person in the Western world in possession of all their marbles, Angela Merkel is notable for sticking to her mother tongue. (Trump would probably consider learning another language a form of high treason.) Consider also that the two most renowned polyglots in UK politics – Clegg and Ashdown – are members of the Lib Dems and for that reason arguably more likely to ignore dogma in favour of entertaining multiple perspectives.
I once had an extraordinary demonstration of how speaking a language draws you into its culture and customs. As part of a work-related visit I went to the Netherlands, where I watched a duty solicitor at a court interview a succession of people detained for drug offences. They came from all over Europe, and he addressed each of them in their own tongue. The transformation in this sober-suited professional every time he switched languages was amazing. French? He slumped elegantly, turned down the corners of his mouth, and said ‘Eeeeuuuuu’ a lot. Spanish? His speech speeded up, incisive hand gestures cleaved the air, the eyebrows rose and fell. English? The pace slowed again, his hands returned to stasis, the intonation and volume dwindled to a reserved murmur. It was a remarkable – and quite unconscious – performance.
We all have our own impressions of how languages that we don’t understand sound, and there is a degree of consensus: German is guttural, Chinese is nasal and based on permutations of ‘ow’ and ‘ing’, etc. Chris Langham characterised Japanese as ‘cold, constipated and forgetful’ (give it a try), and my sister described a dialect of Spanish as sounding as if it were spoken only by people without any teeth.
As tight-laced Anglophones, it often seems to us as if much of the rest of the world is angry and shouting, even when people are just having a friendly chat. How I would love, just for a couple of minutes, to be able to hear my language without understanding it, to know how it appears to others.