If you are anything like me, you probably grew up with a tacit understanding of language that went something like this. The world is split into countries and each country has its own language. While some countries, like the US and the UK, share the same language, the general rule is that Hungarians speak Hungarian, Malaysians speak Malaysian, the Chinese speak Chinese and so on.
Of course, I later learned that the picture was more complex. Some countries had minority languages, such as Welsh; others, like South Africa, were home to a range of languages. What didn’t change, though, was my assumption that languages were stable, definable things that are often the principal marker of national or ethnic difference. During the break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, I came to understand that Serbs spoke Serbian, Croats spoke Croatian, Slovenes spoke Slovenian and so on—and that all of them were definably separate things.
Such assumptions are reinforced by the subtle and not-so-subtle signs we see all around us. One of the most significant is from product packaging. In a globalised world, many of the products we buy include product information in multiple languages. When we see English information listed alongside French, German and other languages, the message we receive is that each is an entirely separate entity, and that each is spoken by a nation or nations.
Yet the distinction between languages is much messier than is commonly understood. The emergence of the modern nation state has often been accompanied by violence. When we fail to notice the messiness of language and the contingency of the nation, we end up colluding in the erasure of complicated and difficult histories.
Sometimes, the presence of multilingual messages can give us a false sense of cosmopolitanism. Take the warning message slip found inside Kinder Surprise eggs.
As someone who adores languages I don’t understand, for a long time I have been obsessed with this small sheet of paper—an obsession culminating in the publication of my new book The Babel Message: A Love Letter to Language. At first, I saw the warning message sheet as a feast of linguistic diversity. It includes 34 languages, everything from Albanian to Azerbaijani, in multiple scripts. There are “small” languages, like Estonian (spoken by about a million people) and massive ones, like Chinese and English.
The more I looked into it, though, the more I realised that the apparent diversity of warning messages colludes in all sorts of assumptions about what a language is. Given that these warning messages are legally required in many countries—small children can indeed choke on the tiny toys inside Kinder Eggs—they are written in “official” tongues: the language of law and the state. Yet the choice of language hides complicated political, historical and linguistic issues.
One of the paradoxes of this warning message sheet is that the unusually large number of languages draws attention to those languages not there. Irish and Maltese—both official EU languages—are absent, presumably because in Ireland and Malta almost everyone speaks English. “Minority” languages are also missing, even when they have millions of speakers. In the UK you can complete your tax return in Welsh, but you almost never see it on packaging. In some countries, the official language differs markedly from the spoken language of everyday life: Swiss German is so different from official German as to be unintelligible to most Germans, yet it is rarely written down: standard German is the predominant written language. The same is true for the multiplicity of spoken Arabics that co-exist with the written standard form; a Moroccan and an Iraqi, if they are sufficiently educated, can read the same books written in standard Arabic but may have great difficulty in speaking to each other in their native tongues.
The designation of a language as “official” is, in many places, a modern development that involved elevating one way of speaking and writing over related versions. For example, what we understand today as “French” and “Italian” are, in fact, the standardised versions of the Îsle de France and Tuscan dialects respectively.
In some countries, though, this singular elevation has never been completely successful. There are two official versions of “Norwegian.” The one that appears on the Kinder Surprise warning message sheet is called Bokmål and derives from the Danish-influenced language of the Norwegian elite as spoken in the 19th century. The other, Nynorsk, is the product of a 19th-century consolidation of regional variants and is designed to be as different as possible from Danish. Multinational corporations rarely use Nynorsk on product information.
The unwritten “twins” of official languages haunt the other. Official Albanian is in the Tosk variant of the language. Gheg, its twin, isn’t usually written in official contexts, despite being the dominant variant in Kosovo. Official written Armenian is in fact Eastern Armenian, based on the form used in Yerevan, capital of modern Armenia. The other main variant, Western Armenian, was the dominant form of the language before the Ottoman genocide of the Armenians decimated its homeland.
Multinational corporations such as Ferrero (which produces Kinder Surprise eggs) adapt to changing linguistic standards. One German Kinder Surprise collectors website has compiled a near-complete archive of the warning message slips included, dating back over 30 years. Browsing this archive, we can see how Ferrero was forced to adapt to the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. From the 1990s, we find warnings gradually appearing in Serbian, Croatian, Macedonian and Slovenian. At one stage, Serbian was written in Cyrillic script and marked with a “YU” for Yugoslavia. At another point, what is today marked as the Croatian message was labelled “BS” for Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Ferrero has not gone as far as the former Yugoslavia itself, where some products give information in Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian and Montenegrin. This leads to absurdities such as identical wording in all or some of them. No one can agree on the boundaries between the four languages that were once labelled as the single Serbo-Croatian language. And as some linguists have argued, the differences between some dialects of Croatian are greater than the differences between official Croatian and official Serbian.
While the breakup of nations sometimes leads to the breakup of languages, the reverse can also happen. For many years, the Kinder Surprise warning had separate messages in Romanian and Moldovan. There is a passionate debate in both countries as to whether Moldovan is a separate language at all. There are certainly separate dialects of Romanian spoken in Moldova and, when the country was part of the Soviet Union, the language came to be written in Cyrillic and adopted Russian words and expressions. In the last few years, though, the pendulum seems to have swung towards viewing “Moldovan” as the Romanian language as spoken in Moldova. So it is that there is now a single warning message for both languages, marked “RO-MO.”
When language is used in official contexts, we can be lulled into thinking that languages and nations are stable, eternal things. They are not. Language is always in motion and the nations that speak them are themselves transitory creations. The Kinder Surprise egg warning messages are barely-successful attempts to conceal linguistic plurality.
Ironically, it may be that well-meaning attempts to ensure that messages are translated into multiple tongues reinforce such delusions. For example, the EU’s policy of ensuring that communication be conducted in all of the 24 official languages of the Union colludes in the marginalisation of minority European languages. Extending the list of official languages to include, for example, Basque might be more practical than for some of the less widely-spoken ones like Frisian or Sorbian. Nonetheless, while the EU may need standardised lingua franca in order to communicate, there’s no escaping the ways in which the status accorded to some languages over others feeds complacent assumptions about what language actually is.
We must therefore balance the pragmatic recognition that communication across borders needs a modest number of artificially stabilised tongues with deliberate attempts to shock ourselves out of our linguistic complacency. My own contribution to the latter has been to commission dozens more translations of the Kinder Surprise warning message that currently don’t appear with the chocolate egg. I collected translations in languages both widely spoken (Hindi) and endangered (Jèrriais, Cornish), both old (Sumerian, Sanskrit) and new (Dothraki, Klingon), both rarely-written (Swiss German, Cantonese) and never-spoken (Braille, British Sign languages). The results, which can be found in my book, add up to a glorious mess. The sobriety of an official warning message sheet is thus turned into a festival of linguistic anarchy.
The Babel Message: A Love Letter to Language is published by Icon Books on 4th November