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Speaking In Tongues

Gava Fox in praise of the cunning linguist.


I’ll admit to being something of a grammar Nazi. In conversation, I’m secretly correcting your speech. If I’m linked to you on social media, you can be sure that each time you misuse “their”, “there” and “they’re”, you’ll drop down at least one place on our friendship pole. “Confusing “your and “you’re” makes my blood boil. Send me a text saying “c u m8 dun b l8” and you will be met with frosty silence.

This is because language is what separates us from beasts. Sure, many animals can communicate — some in ways more sophisticated than ours — but none can articulate thoughts or ideas. Scientists have shown that whales use clicks, whistles and echolocation to communicate with fellow pod members or seek out a mate.  They don’t say “Moby Dick, what’s the story with Captain Ahab following you around with the harpoon?”.


Spend a night in any jungle and you can be sure you’ll be kept awake by the cacophony of wildlife; cicadas rubbing their legs together, or monkeys barking. They’re just announcing their presence or expressing alarm, not discussing last night’s football results or the latest shenanigans of the Kardashians.

Language is an altogether different thing. It allows us not just to communicate, but to communicate ideas. Language allows us to express profound thoughts in words that can be understood by anyone who speaks the same tongue. And language is translated so freely that it allows us to learn about different cultures even if we don’t speak a word in that particular vernacular.

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According to biblical literalists, all mankind spoke the same language until residents of Babel decided to build a tower so high it would reach God himself. The Almighty, quick to anger in those days of regular smiting, was not impressed by this show of human arrogance, so (according to Genesis chapter 11, verses 1-5) he “confounded their tongues”, so they couldn’t understand each other, and scattered them and their languages across the globe.


And scatter they did. The world has an estimated 7,000 languages — at least 300 of them in Indonesia alone — and their richness and variety provide a fascinating study. Sadly, around 500 of them are on the verge of extinction, spoken by just a handful of elderly adherents.

Take Taki Taki, for example, a Creole dialect spoken in Suriname, which has just 340 words. Rotokas, spoken in Papua New Guinea, has an alphabet of just 12 letters (compared to Khmer’s 74) and boasts only 11 distinct sounds, six of them consonant and five vowel. Ubyx, spoken in the Georgian caucuses, has 81 distinct sounds but only two of them are vowel. Listening to merchants argue at a street market must be like hearing a throat-clearing competition at a smokers convention.

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Chinese and Greek, both dating back to around 1,500 BC, are the oldest written languages still in existence, although scribes first put pen to paper — or rather stick to clay tablet — in ancient Egypt and Sumeria around 1,700 years earlier. The most translated written document in the world, incidentally, is the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is published in 321 languages and dialects.

Most of us learn our first words through our parents — it’s likely to be either a version of “ma-ma” or “da-da” — and we slowly develop our vocabularies until school, where the process becomes more formal. If you’re lucky, you’ll have the opportunity to learn a second language while young — it gets more difficult the older you get — but everyone in Bali knows at least one multi-cultural family with kids that speak fluent English, Indonesian and whatever languages their parents speak. They have a huge advantage in life from the get-go.

With all these languages in the world, it is perhaps surprising that English has come to dominate like no other. It is undoubtedly the world’s lingua franca, an official language in almost 60 nations and the the third most common mother tongue in the world after Mandarin and Spanish. It is also the most widely learned second language.

But the English we speak today is vastly different to that spoken when the language first emerged around 1,500 years ago.


In terms of grammar, Old English was closer to German than anything else, with vocabulary readily borrowed from any of the invaders that showed up on Britain’s shores. It’s written form is scarcely recognisable today, as evidenced by the opening lines of the epic poem Beowulf, one of the earliest written in English:

“Hæt Grde na ingar dagum þod cyninga  þrym ge frunon.”

(“Listen! We of the Spear-Danes from days of yore have heard of the glory of the folk-kings.”)


When William the Conqueror took England in 1066, the language became widely influenced by Old Norman, closely related to modern French, but began to look and sound more similar to what we know today — although most authors still wrote in Latin.

It wasn’t until around 1380 when Geoffrey Chaucer penned The Canterbury Tales that anything written in English gained a popular audience. His story of travelling pilgrims is difficult to read in the original — and not much easier in the modernised versions force-fed to generations of school children until it fell out of favour in the ’70s — but you can see the emergence of the language we speak today in every passage.

‘Wepyng and waylyng, care and oother sorwe

I knowe ynogh, on even and a-morwe,’

Quod the Marchant, ‘and so doon oother mo

that wedded been.’

(‘Weeping and wailing, care and other sorrow

I know enough, in the evening and in the morning,’

said the Merchant, ‘and so does many another

who has been married.’)


The next phase in the development of English came between 1500 and 1700 and coincided with the introduction of the printing press to Britain, allowing the dissemination of written works on an unprecedented scale.

The period also produced the greatest contributor to the language in history, William Shakespeare.

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare, but his influence is so great that it is taken for granted by almost everyone. The Bard of Avon was such a cunning linguist that he is credited with inventing over 1,700 words — sometimes by changing nouns into verbs, changing verbs into adjectives, connecting words never used before or adding suffixes and prefixes.


This is a fashionable magazine, is it not? The word “fashionable” was first coined by Shakespeare in Troilus and Cressida:

For time is like a fashionable host

That slightly shakes his parting guest by the hand

And how about addiction? Written more than 400 years ago in Henry V, the first use of the word is just as descriptive today:

Since his addiction was to courses vain,

His companies unlettered, rude and shallow,

His hours filled up with riots, banquets, sports,

New words leaked from his quill. Accused, arouse, bedroom, blanket, critic, elbow, dwindle and excitement all appeared for the first time in one of Shakespeare’s plays. Even modern sounding words we assume were more recently forged can be attributed to him, such as advertising, marketable and metamorphise.

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His expressions pepper our speech — even if we don’t realise it.

If you are waiting for something with “bated breath”, you’re quoting The Merchant of Venice, if you “break the ice” with a hot date, you’re quoting The Taming of the Shrew and if you know someone who “lives a charmed life”, that’s Macbeth. If you’re into activities that aren’t for the “faint-hearted”, you’re describing Henry VI, especially if you “fight to the last”, which comes from the same play.

If “forever and a day” (As You Like It), you “wear your heart on your sleeve” (Othello) and refuse to ”budge an inch”(Measure for Measure) as “come what may” (Othello) “every dog has its day” (Hamlet) and “for goodness sake” (Henry VIII) “the game is up” (Cymbeline), because “it’s high time” (Comedy of Errors) you learned “the naked truth” (Love’s Labours Lost), so “put your best foot forward” (King John) life comes “a full circle” (King Lear) and “good riddance”(Troilus and Cressida) to your “wild goose chase” (Romeo and Juliet).


The English vocabulary took another great leap forward during the rise of the British Empire.

From India, the colonials plundered the words bangle and bungalow, pyjamas and thug, shampoo and loot. From Persian they took check, checkmate and chess, while from Arabic they helped themselves to gazelle, giraffe, harem, mosque bazaar and caravan, to list just a few.

Curry, mango, teak and pariah are all from Tamil. Banjo, gorilla, zebra, zombie and voodoo have their roots in Africa. Avocado, cannibal, hurricane and maize emerge from the Americas while tea and ketchup are made in China.

The English language has an estimated 250,000 words, making it arguably the richest language the world has known. It is “arguable” mostly because some languages — such as Finnish or German — frequently join words together to make new compound expressions, even though they may not actually appear in a dictionary. Rather than write “world market leader”, for example, an enterprising German journalist would instead say “Weltmarktführer”.

We take language for granted — not just our own mother tongue, but also the multitude of languages spoken by billions of others around the world — because it is effectively an instinct, like breathing. Life would not be life without it.