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If you want to speak the English language like a true descendent of Shakespeare - or of Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Virginia Woolf... - look no further. In the fifth instalment of our series on idiomatic English, we find out how to say "the king is dead" in Persian...

tabby
Photo: Avi Nahmias (licence)
A "patterned cat"? Or a tabby?

To be, or not to be - that is the fraign:

Whether 'tis more athal in the mind to underbear

the slings and arrows of hiscious dright

or take up gattow against a sea of agledge...

This is how Hamlet's famous speech might look if English had remained a purely Germanic language, refusing to fill its vocabulary with mispronounced borrowings. The mongrel existence of English began in 1066 with the Norman Conquest, which flooded our language with French borrowings. In the last instalment of this column, we looked at some of the European visitors which have become part of English since that time - from "déjà vu" to "bolshie."

It might seem that the British have always been rather relaxed about the mass immigration of foreign words into their language. They don't have an eqivalent of the Académie Française to monitor and limit language change, and they have never adopted the method of German, which translated new words rather than adopting them directly. ("Oxygen" is "Sauerstoff" in German - literally "sourstuff." The Greek word "oxygen" means "acid-giver.") However, through the ages, there have been many prominent English purists. The language they promote is sometimes called "Anglish" - an English purged of all immigrants.

George Orwell was also a sort of purist, with his defence of "plain English" and his insistence that writers should not use a "foreign" word when an "English" one would do. He had noticed that writers (particularly politicians and academics) tended to use unfamiliar foreign words when attempting to obscure an unpalatable claim and hide the meaning of their words in flowery language. His aim was to work against over-complicated, euphemistic language - but the distinction between "foreign" and "English" is far from clear. There are many thousands of words which appear English, but are actually not even European. They came into the language along Britain's trade-routes, from the countries explored or colonised by Britain, and from people from outside Europe who came to live in Britain.

So if you try to follow Orwell's advice, beware. For instance, the nickname for Britain, "Blighty," sounds perfectly English and even has a patriotic ring to it. Would you have thought that it's actually a version of a Hindi word meaning "foreign"? Perhaps you don't feel that you would lose face by using the expression "lose face" (to embarrass oneself), a direct translation of a Chinese idiom. But would you be embarrassed to be drubbed (completely beaten, from Arabic for "beat") by a thug (violent man, from Hindi/Sanskrit for "robber") at chess (from the Persian word for "king")? Or possibly you should avoid playing chess at all, since you'll have to say or hear the words "check mate" which come from the Persian for "the king is dead."

If you want to try to hold back the juggernaut (unstoppable monster/machine, from Hindi/Sanskrit for "lord of the world") of hybrid English, you'd better be aware of the hazards (risks, from Arabic for "play at dice"). You might end up speaking a rather garbled (distorted, from an Arabic word meaning "to sift") language and having to find a different word for ketchup (Malay, vinegary sauce) and admiral. (Admiral comes from the Arabic for "ruler of the": the word is taken from a phrase such as "ruler of the seas" which was split in the wrong place.) You'll no longer live the cushy (luxurious, from Hindi for "pleasant") life of an ordinary English speaker who simply speaks without worrying about the origin of words: your tabby (cat with mottled fur, from the Arabic name of an area in Baghdad where taffeta cloth was made) will have to become a "patterned cat", and you won't be able to all anyone a bint (offensive word for a woman, similar to "bitch", from the Arabic for "daughter") or a popinjay (old-fashioned word for someone vain, from Arabic for "parrot").

And if you happen to find yourself in a shack (make-shift shed, from Nahuatl for "thatched cabin") with a cannibal (from Tupi for "superior man") in a hurricane (from Carib, literally "his one leg"; in fact the name of a god), you'll have to consider your linguistic escape plan before you set about getting rescued.

Speaking "Anglish" is tricky, no matter how much of a gung ho* Anglophile you are...

*"gung ho" means enthusiastic or dedicated. It entered British English from American English, and in British English it often has a slightly negative undertone. In America, it became the unofficial motto of the Marines in 1942, introduced from Chinese by Major Evans Carlson. It's usually said to mean "work together" in Chinese - supposedly, it was the motto of the Chinese Industrial Cooperatives. In fact, "gung" and "ho" are American versions of two individual Chinese characters taken from the name for the Industrial Cooperatives - they do mean "work" and "together" literally, but they do not form a recognisable phrase or motto in Chinese.

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