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How to cut a dash in Swahili

[ By Martin Gregory, from New Scientist (5 Nov 1994, p.47) ]

Martin Gregory explains how to bluff your way in almost any language.

British scientists enjoy a worthy reputation for failing to learn languages. We must see that this is maintained.

Failing to learn languages is easy. Read this, and you can fail to learn 17 of them in 5 or 10 minutes, and still seem to know them all. Just disclaim any knowledge, but come out with the odd sentence here and there, and the odd useless fact. People will be impressed by your knowledge and your modesty.

No doubt you have tackled French already, and have been driven up the wall by "Le" and "La". "Le mouche," said an Englishman when he saw a fly on the ceiling. "La mouche," corrected the Frenchman. "My God, you've got good eyesight," was the reply. What other answer did he expect? All flies are female, it seems. So are all chairs, and all beards. How can a chair be female? Genitalia, OK, but you'll find that the male ones are feminine and the female ones are masculine. Apart from "Le" and "La", French is easy (unless you have to pronounce "chirugien").

Hungarian is very like English. In some respects. In one respect, at least. One word is the same, anyway: "see ya" means goodbye. The spell it "szia" for some reason. The spell everything else wrong too, so you can't make head or tail of anything.

Scandinavian languages have wisely merged masculine and feminine, but they have three sexes to start with, so they are still left with two - common and neuter - which are even more useless than those in French. They have two rather attractive features, though: the definite article is stuck on the end of the noun, and verbs are made passive by adding an S. "Mad", food; "Maden spises": the food is eaten.

Germans are proud of their linguistic prowess, so you won't have to know any German. On the other hand, German is the language of science. Long words abound, and all the verbs pile up at the end of the sentence: an ideal medium if you want to impress people without fear that anyone will actually read your work. I suggest the "Zentralblatt fur Bakteriologie, Parasitenkunde, Infektionskrankheiten un Hygiene, Abteilung II Naturwissenschaftliche Mikrobiologie der Landwirtschaft, der Technologie und des Umweltschutzes". Or you may prefer the English journal, "Gut".

Having failed to understand one language you will find it easier to fail another. In most languages some words will be familiar. Even in Arabic, for example, you find alcohol, algebra and sugar. Every Arabic word is based on three root consonants. Vowels and prefixes are then scattered among them to make different forms. For example, K, T and B give you "uktub", write; "kitaab", book; "kutub", books; "kaatib", writer; "maktab", office, and so on. Children have to learn to recognise the root consonants, and to spot the connection between (for instance) "bugra" (cow), and "abgar" (cows). Vowels are unimportant to Arabs. They use many but only recognise three: A, I and U. Short vowels are not written. Mohammed, for instance, is written "MHMD" and you can more or less insert whatever vowels you like.

Arabic leads on to Swahili: "safari", journey, and "kitabu", book. In 1964, a year after Kenya's independence, I bought a "kitabu" called "Up-Country Swahili". It was written by a colonial for colonials, who needed only to know how to give orders to their servants: "Boy! Prepare my bath. Not too hot this time!" I keep it as a relic of a lost culture. Swahili has not only prefixes and suffixes, it has fixes in the middle of words, which give tenses, moods, negatives and so on with astonishing brevity: "naona", I see; "wasikuone", so that they do not see you.

At least Swahili uses a script recognisable to Westerners. Azerbaijani is a dialect of Turkish, and like Turkish it used to be written in the Arabic script. Early this century it switched to the Latin alphabetic. Then Stalin changed it to the Russian script. Now the Azeris are talking about changing it back to the Latin. No wonder there is civil unrest.

The worst is Russian. I'm not complaining about the new letters - they can be learned. I'm complaining about those that are simply wrong. "Restaurant" for instance is pronounced more or less the same, but is written "PECTOPAH". In handwriting the letters are different again, and even more wrong: "doctor" is pronounced doctor, but is written "gokmop". Worse is to come. There are three genders and six cases: every adjective has a long and a short form, and has to agree with the noun in number, gender and case: so for each adjective you have 72 endings to choose from ... and we haven't got beyond chapter 3 yet. A verb comes next. I'm sorry, but you have to have a verb. In fact you have to have two verbs, a perfective and an imperfective, each of which has a different ending for each person. And if your verb has anything to do with movement you are in real trouble. For each kind of movement there are two imperfective verbs - the definite and indefinite, and for each of them there is one for moving on foot and another for moving by transport. Suppose you go to leave a "PECTOPAH" to go to the "gokmop". You can't just go. You have to choose from a periodic table of verbs, any of which mean "go". No wonder the Russians never let anyone out of the country: they could never find the right verb.

In 1917 they had a revolution, and slashed their alphabet from 36 to 32. Meanwhile, Tahitians do very well with only 13. Here's a useful phrase for the next time you're in Tahiti and you want to tell someone "Has been carried rapidly this sick man to the doctor so that be treated well he": "Us afai oioio hia teie mai o te taote, ia rapaau matai hia oia".

When you find yourself in a Thai restaurant, ask for "cow". It's rice. If you want fried rice, ask for "cow pat". If you are male and you want to thank the waiter (or waitress) say "cop coon crap". Females have to say "cop coon" something else, I've forgotten what.

Another key sentence to help you around the world is "Il cappello dello zio e nel fiume", which is useful when your uncle's hat is in the river and you want an Italian to know about it.

If you wish to look foolish, learn the swear words. They are the gems of a language. They carry immense power, and if used by a novice, expose him or her to ridicule. It is safer to know no words, just irrelevant facts. Let people know that Spanish has two imperfect subjunctives. Nobody will volunteer that they don't know what a subjunctive is, let alone an imperfect one. After all, the British won their empire without imperfect subjunctives. Didn't they?

The only thing that's imperfect about English is the spelling. Millions of kids every year are told that "inuf" is "enough". Intelligent kids conclude that their teacher is a nutcase, and thenceforth disregard anything he or she says. So they find themselves at the bottom of the class, and more great brains are lost to civilisation. Meanwhile those at the top of the class become linguists, and seek to preserve this idiocy to safeguard their own jobs.

So how was it? Just to check on your progress, translate the following into Tahitian: "Naona le cow pat dello gokmop spises nel PECTOPAH, cop coon crap", and don't forget the imperfect subjunctives. Szia.

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