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.


Alexis, Baron von Harlot said...

While I was away, I decided to base all my future blog posts on a combination of vague sexual innuendo and ludicrous ethnic stereotypes. Also, Beatrice caught her first mouse, Harriet caught her first caterpillar, I caught a cold (haha), and life did its thing, etc.

TimT said...

All uvula, red ruvula.

Mitzi G Burger said...

Just this morning I played up to the mistaken identity as a third-generation migrant of Italian descent, saying "grazie, Signor/a" at every possible opportunity. The locals of Griffizio were visibly impressed by a fellow polyglotesse.

Mitzi G Burger said...

One suggests that on any other blog, "swollen uvula" would carry obscene connotations!

Alexis, Baron von Harlot said...

This is true. Fortunately, my international reputation for chastity and continence will save the day.

Alexis, Baron von Harlot said...

Griffizio! Land of the tinned peach!

TimT said...

I give this blog post a standing uvulation.

Alexis, Baron von Harlot said...

Don't be tonsilly.

TimT said...

I especially like the all-purposeness of your closing advice - 'Feign a swollen uvula'. To that end, I have written the following:

You're going to the doctor
And you think you have but you're not quite sure a case of rather irritating effluvia,
And you would like to get hold of some medication but are not sure how to convince him of your illness?
Feign a swollen uvula.

You're a jazz singer
And for some reason on some particular night, you can't get into the groove, no, you're singing is not at all groovular,
Well, problems uvularic may be just your problem, but even if it isn't and they aren't, do it anyway,
Feign a swollen uvula.

You're a member of the local ululatory club,
And for some reason tonight, your ululatory feats can't reach the heights of ululatory glory that you have been accustomed to reach, that's right, you have problems ulular,
Well, you know what to do -
Feign a swollen uvular.

Or even this:
You have a pet penguin, and it lives in a house of its own, and the roof of that house has blown off,
Yes, your penguin has problems roovular:
It may not actually help that much, but go on. Do it anyway.
Feign a swollen uvula.

Anonymous Bosch said...

I'm not sure that "polyglottism" is a real word - my inner Scrabbulist is revolting. If forced to come up with something, my choice would be "polyglottery". (But that's just me, and I'm often wrong).

Alexis, Baron von Harlot said...

Timty, you'll find your gratuity in the envelope under the fruit bowl.

Anon Bosch, the OED allows polyglottery, polyglottism, and polyglossia. Downright permissive, if you ask me.

TimT said...

A POLYGLOSSIER is a multilingual dictionary with a shiny cover.

A POLYGUTS is a person who eats scrabbled eggs for breakfast.

A POLYGLOTTOMIS is a plurality of epiglottimi.

And I am poly going... poly going... polygon.

Ann O'Dyne said...

Power to the pingwuns! - this whole thing has caused me a polyglottal-stop.

Ampersand Duck said...

Can you be a monolingual poly-something? I can speak

Old People's Home helper
among others.

What is that called?

TimT said...

Monoglot with the lot.

brokenbiro said...

Polygluttony - like foreign words a leetle too much.

I think with a series of posts concerning your uvula you have discouvert a new oeuvre. I do hope you uvulate regularly.

Anonymous said...

Felicitations, ma soeur! (L'epagneul en laine)

wisewoman60 said...

Total joy to read!

Lad Litter said...

Good post LH. I am fluent in pseudo-languages, with a PhD in pretentious pronunciation.

Alexis, Baron von Harlot said...

Thank you so, kind sisters, wise women, and lad litters.