Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Looking for the Universal Language Again

I don't speak any Russian but I can decode the alphabet and so I have been able to entertain myself these past few days in Russia (as I did in Poland) looking for cognates. One point that caught my mind: if you look back to the 19th Century, you pick up a lot of words that spread from French into a universal tourist language. Granted, the Tsarist elite spoke French as a first language. But I bet you'll find a lot of these examples in other places as well. That is, every old hotel has a sal de this and that—perhaps serving as meeting rooms on the premier etage. At the theater, you may leave your coat in a garderobe and occupy a box in a parter. And I guess words like salon and concierge aren't even borrowings any more: they are simply English (was it Wallace Stevens who said that all French words are English—some we put in italics, others not—?).

Meanwhile, as I continue my transcontinental quest for for easy cognates, I see that the Flemings and the Walloons are ripping themselves to shreds over just this issue. Indeed it looks to me like the Flemings arre turning just as lingo-cranky as the Parisian French were under DeGaulle (sic, but are not, in my experience, today).

And another related note: Mrs. B reports that per Michael Pollen, any food that has the same name in every country (Cheetos, Big Mac)--is not food.

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