If I ruled the world

Britons should be banned from speaking English and made to use another language: French, Gaelic—or perhaps even Pictish
November 17, 2010
Ah that's more like it. Photo: Lee Jordan

Someone must put a stop to the global domination of the English language. Its position is unjustified—English is not beautiful to hear, nor is it an easy tongue to learn. Everyone thinks that Russian, for instance, is difficult—but it operates on a “see it, say it” principle where you sound out every letter in a word. Try doing that with “cough” or “laugh.” Even Americans struggle to ask the way to Leicester Square.

It is high time, then, for revolyutsiya. (See, that was easy to pronounce, wasn’t it? Not a silent vowel in sight.) And as the originators of the imperialist tongue, we need to take the lead. If I ruled the world, I would relegate English to second place in all the countries where it is currently the native language. Native English speakers would be made to use a minority language instead.

Here in Britain, anyone who already knows a foreign language can simply learn to speak it better. The most advanced linguist in each family will dictate the language of choice. Households with no dominant language must learn Welsh, Cornish, Gaelic or one of the extinct languages of the British Isles.

There are plenty to choose from. And think how exciting it would be to master the Norman dialect of Auregnais. This was still spoken in Alderney as recently as the second world war. Sample word: vraic, meaning seaweed fertiliser. See how useful these languages are? There is no single word for seaweed fertiliser in English. How pathetic is that? The dead British languages are much better. They offer something for everyone.

You like a laugh? Then learn Shetland Norn, not spoken since the 1850s. A typical Norn riddle: “Four hang, four walk, four stand skyward, two eyes show the way to the field and one tail comes dangling behind.” The answer is a cow. Hilarious. Norn would also suit very lazy people who just want to speak English in a silly voice because the Norn word for horse is hrossey.

For the more intelligent and ambitious (Prospect readers, obviously), difficult languages would be obligatory, such as Gaulish, from the 6th century BC. It has—count ‘em—seven cases, including the instrumental. If you loved learning Latin at school, you’ll go wild for Gaulish. It is also recommended to anyone with a penchant for high camp, as it contains lots of portentous but essentially meaningless phrases such as “Atom deuogdonion,” which means “The border of gods and men.”

I have a soft spot for Pictish, which died out in the early middle ages and is described by philologists as fiendishly complicated. Pictish put the Aber into Aberdeen (river mouth) and the Pert into Perth (hedge). It contains brilliant words like ahehhttann and hccvvevv. Sadly no one knows what they mean, making it the perfect language for people who don’t like talking to anyone.

Bit of a chatterbox? Try Cumbric, a Celtic language believed to have survived in the Wigan area into the 12th century. Imagine the fun you can have counting to five: yan, tan, tethera, methera, pimp. If you have heard of Bryn (hill), Glasgow (green hollow) and Penrith (red ford), you practically speak it already, providing you only want to inform bus drivers of your destination.

You may be wondering how we British will communicate with each other if we all speak different, localised languages. Well, we would just have to do what everyone who is not a native English speaker does now: speak really bad English. Apparently, you only need 1,500 words to communicate fairly fluently. This is where we have been going wrong all these years. Our problem is that we speak English too well. We know too many words.

Demote English to second language status and our pointlessly bloated vocabulary will die. In fact, the situation I’m describing is already happening. The term “Globish” was coined in 1995 by French businessman Jean-Paul Nerrière to describe the international spread of English as a second language. As Robert McCrum explains in his recent book on the subject, native English speakers are not at an advantage in a Globish-speaking world. In fact we look intensely stupid because we are the only people who don’t speak the lingua franca properly (ie appallingly).

All kinds of inept but amusing exchanges will become possible—and there will be no more Anglo-Saxon one-upmanship. This conversation, for example, will no longer take place. Foreigner: “I am thinking of a shape with 12 sides.” Native English speaker: “The word you’re looking for is dodecahedron.” Now the foreigner will be able to retort: “That’s not on the list of 1,500 words. And in any case you knew what I meant to begin with. You’re just showing off.”

Finally, don’t worry if you’re hopeless at learning languages and concerned about remembering that the new word for five is pimp. Special dispensation will be given to the linguistically inept. They can continue to speak English—as long as they talk like the Swedish chef on The Muppet Show.