Sunday, 7 November 2010


Here is an interesting fact: polyglot derives from the Greek words for many and tongue. Many-tongue. Ew. People use this word in polite company, on the train, in front of police officers and grannies. You might as well saunter up to Constable Widget and ask him whether his uvula’s still swollen. “How’s your uvula, Constable? Still murder on the labio-dentals? Oh, by the way, we’re having a polyglot night down at the Hellfire Club. You should swing by.”

As it happens, every polyglot I’ve ever met has been a charming person, but many of us lack the time, wit, educational opportunities, or lairy audacity necessary for committed polyglottism. In tourism-induced episodes of cross-cultural encounter, we confirmed one-tongues generally have to fall back on what linguists call a lexical “smattering” – of French, Spanish, Urdu – to which more advanced crypto-monoglots add the pertinent accent, which accent can be perfected by listening carefully to Peter Sellers on youtube. To give you some indication of what this sounds like in the field, here’s a pre-recording of a practised monoglot working her magic in a Parisian hair salon: “Bonjour, garçon. Ah would lahk un caffé avec soy milk and lots of – ‘ow you say? – chocolate sprinkles.” This is the same person in Frankfurt: “Vow! Vould you look at that amazink Dachshund! He hast schtollen the Bratwurst and he ist running away! Schnell, little Dachshund! Schnell!” And in Auckland: “Usn’t thet neat, broo? You cen guv fush to the pingwuns!” The friendly and undiscerning natives are down at the pub buying Bratwurst smoothies for these champion monoglots in no time flat. When this occurs, the wise one-tongue feigns a swollen uvula.

There’s no reason to be ashamed of good old-fashioned monoglottism, but now and again every Honest John wants to deceive his friends and co-workers regarding his core competencies, and for this purpose, we advise that he learn a couple of handy Anglicised foreign words (loanwords), and deploy them liberally, ideally while being as ridiculously pedantic about their pronunciation and grammatical insertion into the English sentence as he can.

Buttered snails are an infallible social lubricant, as we all know, so I suggest that Honest John begins with loanwords from French. French affords English a frisky little selection of bons mots, including lingerie, croissant, champagne, faux pas, abattoir, cinematheque, and cul-de-sac. These words should be used regularly. If you’re having trouble fitting them into the conversation, change the subject. Your co-workers will love it when you interrupt their discussion about the payroll dispute and propose a ménage à trois with rissoles and lorgnettes. “Why, John,” your managing director will pant, “you’re such a polyglot.” The trick, of course, is to completely, completely Frankify your pronunciation of these key terms. Do not pronounce “lingerie” lonjeray, the way lesser monoglots do. Remember that you are pretending to be able to speak the language that is traditionally spoken only through a mouthful of buttered-snail soufflé (true). That is to say: lan-zjherree.

Accomplished crypto-monoglots have a variety of additional strategies. Try pausing in the middle of your meeting, furrowing your brow and muttering, “How do they say this word in the English? Oh. Ah. Dear me. [Sotto voce
] Merde! Errm. Oh, yes,” and here you must handle the familiar English term as if your mouth were a pair of barbeque tongs, “water jug. Would you be so kind as to pass the ‘water jug’, please.”

Of course, the risk with all this is that the secret workplace polyglot will uncloset herself there and then and ask you en Français whether you’d prefer the water jug or the bottle of sparkling dog’s urine she has in her briefcase. In this case, “Je ne croissant pas” may not be a suitable answer. Feign a swollen uvula.