English as she is not spoken

As you probably know, English is World Language No.2., close behind Chinese as far as the  number of speakers of either language is concerned. But behind the statistics there lies a wonderland of unofficial English – not the spoken variety, in fact belonging to those who do not speak it at all, only borrow certain words and use them in highly imaginative and often bizarre ways. And they seem to do this  because it appears to them that using an English word adds class, style and a touch of worldliness to whatever they are saying in their own tongue.

I first discovered this when I lived in Paris and found that one of the most dazzling and expensive jeweller’s shop in the super-elegant Rue de la Paix traded under the name of …Fred, hardly the name to suggest wealth and quality, unless you are a French shopper of unlimited means. As time passed, I came across more and more borrowings from English and indeed some examples of Franglais, one of which evoked  the stormy reaction of the Académie Francaise, that venerable guardian of the French language. Its equally venerable members objected  to the increasing use of “le teen-ager“. The correct term, the savants insisted, was “le décagenaire“, a word which to my mind suggested a minor official in Ancient Rome, not a lively young thing in torn jeans and a baseball cap (another hostile Anglo-Saxon infiltration). I’m afraid it never made it into spoken French.

Poor old “teenager” suffered a worse fate in Hungary: during a recent visit I found that it had first been shortened into teeny, eventually ending up as tini  (pronounced tinny). Fortunately most speakers of Hunglish, as the local version is called by its critics, don’t know that “tinny” in proper English denotes, among other things, “an unpleasantly metallic taste”. But similar  borrowings aren’t exactly new: a small notebook in Hungarian is called a “notesz”, pronounced no-tess, while biscuits are called “kex”. Both words go back to the mid-19th century, when an enlightened aristocrat imported some newfangled objects from England, including notebooks (with “NOTES” on the cover) and cake tins (with “CAKES” on the lid). Nearly 200 years later both words in their local  pronunciation are still in daily use.

However, one Hunglish habit was too much even for me. I noticed that when people meet, they greet each other with what sounds like seeya and say hellohello when they go their separate ways. This is all wrong, I said to a local friend, it should be the other way round: your seeya comes from “see ya”, the US equivalent of “au revoir”, so that’s no way to greet someone you’ve just met, you should say “hallo” then,  not when you part, which is when you should say “see ya” if you must. He found this very interesting and we spent some time discussing the eternal lure of English words woven into some alien tongue. Finally I had to move on. He politely saw me to the door of the café where we had met, smiled and, by way of goodbye, said “hellohello!”



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