Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Why Do We Do It

I took the train from Vienna to Budapest last month and, as generally seems to happen when I take that train by myself, I met an extraordinary person. This time it was a 21-year-old girl from Koblenz in Germany who was travelling back to Csikszereda in Romania (also knowns as Miercurea-Ciuc and, sometimes - or formerly - as Seklerburg). She was spending a year there, taking care of disabled people. She'd already spent six months doing this but had had to return to Germany because of the death of her grandmother - her journey, sitting up in what was, I'm sorry to say, a rather rackety Romanian compartment, had already taken nine hours when I got on at Vienna at about seven thirty in the evening and was going to continue until afternoon tea time the following day. We talked until I had to leave her at Budapest and, when she asked me for my email address, I gave it to her with pleasure. I have rarely met anyone so young who was so unselfconsciously good and thoughtful - and wise.

Anyway, the other day she sent me an email which had attached to it a little report she'd written about her time thus far in the part of Romania where she lives. I showed it to my husband and, in his usual alert way, he said, after reading it, 'How odd it is that non-English speakers so rarely change their language to fit in with political fashion.' When I asked what he meant, he pointed out that the German word my friend used to refer to her charges, 'behinderte', doesn't really beat about the bush in its meaning. There is no equivalent, as far as I can tell, in German usage, of our new phrase, 'differently abled'.

Then my husband pointed out that non-English speakers also don't change their language when it comes to place names in the way that we so slavishly do whenever political circumstances faintly suggest it*.  If you read Le Monde, for example, you will find no references to Beijing. While we retain the word Peking when referring to the delicious duck dish, they retain Pekin in every context.

Why do we English speakers so readily alter our language to suit the demands of others - or to cloak the meaning of what we are expressing, in a way that slightly reminds me of the unpleasant habit of spraying air freshener about in a house? Does it indicate something good about us, or is it a sign that we confuse language with what it stands for?

*In this context, my husband also points out, it was interesting to observe Hillary Clinton on her recent trip to Burma. Presumably not wishing to appear to support the current regime, she avoided 'Myanmar' wherever possible, while also steering clear of the old name, 'Burma', which is considered to exclude other constituent nationalities, in the way 'England' does when referring to the whole of Great Britain. Clinton did this, apparently, by using vague phrases, such as 'your beautiful country' et cetera, wherever possible).


  1. "non-English speakers also don't change their language when it comes to place names in the way that we so slavishly do whenever political circumstances faintly suggest it"

    I'll have to ask them about that next time I'm in Kaliningrad or Wroclaw. And as I recall, after a winning battle against the Carthaginians, the Romans renamed Maleventum to Beneventum. In any case Peking was not the first version of the city's name in common use in English, was it?

    I don't know enough of other languages to say how far they avoid the mealy-mouthedness that afflicts English. But the word "euphemism" has roots that go way back, doesn't it?

  2. Barbara, it's too late re smugness, he's been steeped in it for years.
    George, see Barbara's comments - I've always liked the St Petersburg joke, and I'm glad the man's wish has now come to pass.

  3. My version of the joke was an old lady being asked:
    "Where were you born? St Petersburg.
    Where did you grow up? Petrograd.
    Where did you spend your working life? Leningrad.
    Where do you currently reside? St Petersburg.

  4. The next question might be, 'Which one did you like the most?'