Opinion

JEFF JACOBY

Arguable: Words, words, words

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Hinky Dinky Parlez Vous

I wish I were proficient in more than just one language. There are said to be roughly 7,000 languages spoken in the world today. But the only one I can read, write, and speak with ease is English.

To be sure, if you’re going to go through life having mastery of only one language, English is the one to pick. It’s the closest thing the modern world has to a universal tongue — it’s the language of the internet, Hollywood, global business, air travel, and science. It boasts a vocabulary of unparalleled flexibility and richness, with countless words adopted from other languages and cultures. By one estimate, English has more than 750,000 words: (The actor/author/genius Stephen Fry once told an interviewer that English has more words than any other language “by a long, long, long, long way,” and declared that what “China is to the rest of the world in population, English is in the population of its words.”)

So, yes, I’m very glad I’ve got English. But I wish I had more.

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My K-12 education took place at the Hebrew Academy of Cleveland, where Hebrew language instruction, not surprisingly, was part of the curriculum. Alas, it wasn’t a very strong part. I came away with a reasonably solid grasp of prayerbook and Bible Hebrew, but without much adroitness at Hebrew grammar or the ability to conduct more than a rudimentary conversation in fluent modern Hebrew.

When I went to college I resolved to master another language, and took French every semester. I muddled through, getting mostly B’s. Again I struggled with the finer points — to be honest, even the medium points — of grammar. On the plus side, I did acquire a better-than-decent grasp of French pronunciation. (You’ll never catch me verbalizing “lingerie” as lawn-zher-ay or saying “chaise longue” as though it’s “Shay’s Lounge”.) For a while after graduating I tried to keep up my French on my own, listening to French songs and trying to memorize the lyrics, which I printed out to study. A few of those songs I can still follow word for word — Pierre Bachelet’s “Vingt Ans” became a particular favorite. But with no one to converse with regularly en français, my grasp of French dwindled.

As though French weren’t enough of a challenge, I also tried a couple semesters of Russian. It was hopeless. I did manage a raw beginner’s familiarity with the Cyrillic alphabet, and can still sound out Russian words with a little effort. But the grammar? Bozhe moi! I didn’t stand a chance against Russian’s complicated declensions, its six cases (nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, instrumental, and prepositional), three genders, and baffling verb prefixes.

I still remember with admiration, though, the two professors whose classes I took. One was Helen Yakobson, a very elegant woman who was the author of our textbook, and who had, it was said, once upon a time taught Russian to Whittaker Chambers. The other was Mary Miller. She was an immigrant from Latvia and I recall her describing on one occasion the sham election by which the Soviet Union formalized its invasion and occupation of Latvia in 1940.

My lack of foreign language ability is one of the many ways in which I don’t measure up to my father.

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My dad came to the United States from Czechoslovakia in 1948, sailing on the SS America. The ship’s manifest listed the languages understood by each passenger, and the entry for my father noted that he could read and write Czech, Slovak, Hungarian, and Yiddish. (He also had some knowledge of German.) As a boy, he had generally spoken Hungarian with his mother and Yiddish with his father; in public school the language of instruction was Slovak. Nothing unusual there — it was common for residents of Central Europe to grow up multilingual. It might be common for Americans too, if the United States were a small country surrounded by other small countries, each with a different native language.

Within a few months of his arrival in America, my father had found a job and signed up for English lessons. (An aside: The experience of adult immigrants learning English was never better conveyed than in the wonderful “Hyman Kaplan” stories of Leo Rosten. First published in The New Yorker, and later collected in three volumes — The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*AN (1937), The Return of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N (1959), and O K*A*P*L*A*N, My K*A*P*L*A*N (1976) — the stories are simultaneously uproarious and touching, odes to the struggle of so many generations of newcomers to get a grip on the baffling elements of the English tongue.) At first, as I once recounted in a column, the only English my father knew “were the words he’d picked up on the boat coming over.” But like millions of immigrants before and after him, he made learning English a priority:

So two nights a week he would take the bus to a public high school [in Cleveland] that offered English classes, and on a third night he would attend another English class at the Jewish community center. To practice, my father and a number of fellow immigrants formed a New Americans Club, which organized Sunday outings during which everyone was expected to speak English. . . . America in the 1940s and 1950s didn’t make life easy for non-English-speakers, a fact for which I am deeply grateful.

The woman my father fell in love with and married, meanwhile, was a US-born native who only spoke English. As a result, only English was used in our home, so I never absorbed another language in the effortless way children of bilingual parents do. With some of his friends, my father would speak Yiddish, and I could sometimes vaguely follow the drift of the conversation. Would that he had thought to speak Yiddish (or Hungarian or Slovak) with me when I was a baby and toddler! At one point — I was perhaps 12 or 13 —I asked my father to teach me Yiddish. Unfortunately, neither of us had a clue how to go about it. “Give me a list of the words you want to know, and I’ll tell you how to say them in Yiddish,” he said. That was no help. I ended up learning a few more words, but I never learned Yiddish.

To this day I envy, and marvel at, people with a knack for learning languages. Vernon Walters, a military officer who later became a senior American diplomat (he succeeded Jeane Kirkpatrick as the US delegate to the United Nations, and was ambassador to Germany as the Cold War ended), was fluent in six or seven European languages and highly competent in several others, including Russian and Mandarin Chinese. On one occasion, Walter accompanied Richard Nixon to France, where his simultaneous translation of a speech by the president deeply impressed the French leader, Charles de Gaulle. “Nixon, you gave a magnificent speech,” de Gaulle reportedly said, “but your interpreter was eloquent.”

Perhaps if I had made a career in the diplomatic corps I would have had better luck with foreign languages.

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The Foreign Service Institute, which provides language instruction to US personnel, seems pretty adept at equipping diplomats with the language skills they need in foreign postings. As this map shows, it ranks the languages it teaches by the length of time needed to master it. Native English speakers can learn to read and speak Category I languages (e.g., Dutch, French, Danish, Spanish) after just 24 weeks of intensive study, for example, while Category V languages (Arabic, Mandarin, Korean, Japanese) require at least 88 weeks of study.

The thought of getting another language under my belt is as appealing as ever. If I had world enough and time, I would learn Italian, just because it’s so beautifully musical. (Then again, if I had world enough and time, I would read all the books that I keep acquiring.) In the meantime, I have English, and that’s pretty great too.

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Hinky Dinky Parlez Vous II

This woman’s verbal gifts are amazing. Sara Forsberg hilariously demonstrates what an array of languages sound like to those who don’t speak them. She’s mostly talking gibberish, which makes it even more of a tour de force. This YouTube video has drawn more than 19 million views; watch it and you’ll see why.

Do you speak Canadian?

Just as American English isn’t one language — depending on where you live, that soft drink you’re consuming may be “pop,” “soda,” “tonic,” or “coke” — neither is Canadian English. I didn’t realize that, though, until I came across this lively survey by Zack Gallinger and Arik Motskin at the Canadian website The 10 And 3. Headlined “This is How Canada Talks,” it maps the regional variety of all kinds of Canadian expressions and pronunciations.

Did you know, for instance, that what Eastern Canadians call a “garbage disposal,” those in the west call a “garburator”? Or that virtually all Canadians refer to macaroni and cheese as “Kraft Dinner” (or simply “KD”)? Or that while the rest of the English-speaking world calls a hooded sweatshirt a “hoodie,” in Saskatchewan they call it a “bunnyhug”? Or that what we describe as “electric bill,” half of Canadians call the “hydro bill”?

Like many Americans, I tended to assume that the English spoken north of the border was like the English spoken in Minnesota, with the occasional “chesterfield” or “tuque” thrown in for seasoning. Turns out, it’s more interesting than that.

President Donald Trump, right, meets with Navajo Code Talkers Peter MacDonald, center, and Thomas Begay, left, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Monday, Nov. 27, 2017. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
AP Photo/Susan Walsh
President Trump meets with Navajo Code Talkers Peter MacDonald, center, and Thomas Begay, left, in the Oval Office on Nov. 27.

The ‘P’ word and the ‘R’ word

President Trump’s reference to Senator Elizabeth Warren as “Pocahontas” during a White House event honoring Navajo Code Talkers last week was gratuitous, immature, embarrassing, classless, unfunny, and stupid.

But it wasn’t racist.

The president’s mocking jibe was wholly out of place at what was supposed to be a ceremony honoring Native American patriots. The Code Talkers served in the US Marine Corps with bravery and distinction during World War II, and are credited with saving thousands of American lives. Only a president as tone deaf and insensitive as Trump would have sullied their moment in the spotlight by lobbing a juvenile insult about one of his political foes.

“You were here long before any of us were here,” he said, “although we have a representative in Congress who they say was here a long time ago. They call her Pocahontas.”

No sooner were the obnoxious words out of Trump’s mouth than they were being slammed as a racist slur. Warren herself gladly fans those flames. “He uses racist slurs against people to try to make himself feel bigger and everyone else smaller,” she told the Boston Globe. “He intends [‘Pocahontas’] to be a racist slur. Did anyone miss that?”

For something — a word, a policy, an attitude, a slur — to be “racist,” it must be tied to the idea that a racial group is inferior or deserves to be persecuted. Trump’s ill-advised crack was not meant to demean American Indians; it was meant to demean Warren for having claimed American Indian identity. Fox News’ Greg Gutfeld got it right:

“Trump calling her Pocahontas was in effect saying, ‘I’m here with Native Americans. I know Native Americans. And you, Liz, are no Native American.’” He analogized it to someone mocking MSNBC host Joe Scarborough after Scarborough “lamely” played electric guitar on The Late Show. “If you see him and you say, ‘Hey, nice tune, Hendrix!’, that’s not a slur against Jimi Hendrix!” said Gutfeld. “It’s a jab at Joe, who’s making a mockery of Hendrix’s art.”

Warren’s portrayal of herself as part Cherokee was examined in detail during her US Senate campaign in 2012 and debunked pretty irrefutably. (Much of the debunking was undertaken by Cornell University law professor William Jacobson at his website Legal Insurrection.) Page through the evidence, and it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Warren held herself out as a racial minority when it was especially useful to her career advancement to do so. For good reason, some of the harshest criticism of Warren’s Cherokee jive has come not from Republicans or conservatives but from left-wing members of the Cherokee Nation.

“She is not from us. She does not represent us. She is not Cherokee,” writes Rebecca Nagle at ThinkProgress.

In defending her supposed Native identity, Warren has drawn from both racist stereotypes and easily refutable stories about her family. . . Cherokee genealogists have pored through her family history to find that “None of her direct line ancestors are ever shown to be anything other than white, dating back to long before the Trail of Tears.” To add insult to injury, despite Warren’s public claims of Native American heritage, she has decidedly avoided talking with Native leaders and, in 2012, refused to meet with a group of Cherokee women at the Democratic National Convention. . .

Sen. Warren needs to accept responsibility for misappropriating Native identity for her own economic and political gain.

The bottom line? Trump’s use of “Pocahontas” to ridicule the senior senator from Massachusetts was exceptionally ill-timed and in poor taste. Like so much of what comes out of his mouth, it was the opposite of presidential. But racist? Not by a longshot.

ICYMI

My Sunday column took up the Masterpiece Cakeshop case — the controversy over the Colorado baker who refused to make a custom cake for a same-sex wedding for reasons of conscience. The case comes before the Supreme Court for oral argument this week. It gives the justices the chance to uphold two principles: (1) that the benefits of marriage not be denied on the basis of sexual orientation; and (2) that freedom of expression is threatened most when government seeks to control thought or speech.

With “Giving Tuesday” on the calendar last week, I wrote about American charity. The philanthropic spirit has been alive and well in the United States for more than 200 years — Tocqueville expressed amazement at the swarm of American charities in the early 19th century. Though I’ve written about charity before, my focus this time was on the argument advanced by some that the only real charity is that which helps the poor and hungry. Assisting the needy is unquestionable worthy. But it isn’t the only way to lift up human beings and make society better.

Wild Wild Web

Time travelers at the art museum.

The skeletons in “Coco” are really — bony. How did Pixar do that?

The explosives were set and detonated yesterday. But the Pontiac Silverdome (unlike the Detroit Lions) refused to collapse.

According to The Telegraph — or at least this Telegraph travel writer — Finland is the greatest country on earth.

Speaking of Finland, somebody in Helsinki has a sense of humor (and a knack for marketing).

If one domino represents 1 million years, you’d need 2,000 dominoes to represent evolution from the first cell to human beings.

The last line

“He felt eumoirous.” — Leo Rosten, O K*A*P*L*A*N! MY K*A*P*L*A*N! (1976)

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jacoby@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.