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Linguistic chauvinism reigns supreme

The French hate the Germans, The Germans hate the Poles. Italians hate Yugoslavs, South Africans hate the Dutch, And I don't like anybody very much!

The Merry Minuet, Kingston Trio, circa 1960

One of the less attractive qualities of ethnic and linguistic identity is its association with intolerance towards outsiders. Many languages designate those who are mutually intelligible as "speakers" or "people" — Those who speak a language deemed incomprehensible are labeled as the "others," or "babblers."

A few examples are in order. The Ancient Greeks used the onomatopoeic term barbaroi ("babblers") to mock anyone whom they deemed incomprehensible, i.e. anyone who used a language other than Greek. This word came into Latin as barbarus, with the same meaning, and bequeathed to us the words "barbarous" and "barbarian." The Chinese bestowed on the Miao and Moso tribes of South China the name "southern barbarians" and "miserable ones" because they did not understand their speech. The Slavs conferred the name Nemet ("mute" or "dumb") on their German neighbours.

The view that one's own language is superior to others is widespread, and many reasons are supplied in defense of this chauvinistic hypothesis. A language might be viewed the oldest, the most logical, the most phonetic, or the language of the gods. Some of the claims have been particularly preposterous. Sixteenth-century German writer J.G. Becanus argued that German was superior because it was the language Adam spoke in Eden. Luckily, he claimed, it was not affected by the later Babel debacle because the early Germans (the Cimbrians) did not participate in the tower construction. Becanus informs us that the Almighty later caused the Old Testament to be translated from an original but now defunct German into Hebrew.

Languages are prone to attribute negative qualities to foreign influences. In the English language we refer to an unauthorized absence as taking "French leave." The French retaliate by taking "English leave," (filer à l'anglais). Norwegians and Italians join the French in also taking "English leave."

Foreign idioms referencing English provide a snapshot of attitudes towards those in the English-speaking world and it would appear that the honesty of anglophones is questionable. In French to "fleece somebody" is to anglaiser quelqu'un and both the French and the Italians refer to con games as the "American swindle." In Serbo-Croatian the expression praviti se Englez translates as "to act like an Englishman," i.e. to act as if nothing is wrong in the hope that a situation will sort itself out. One humourous French idiom that references the English is les Anglais ont debarqué which is used as a euphemism for "I have my period."

Outsiders are liable to be blamed for vice and immorality in our midst. No example better exemplifies this than the disease syphilis. The Italians attributed it to the French and called it Mal francesse. The French turned the tables and called it Mal de Naples. The Germans also targeted the French and labeled it Franzosen bšse Blattern ("French bad blisters"). The English called it "French pox," or the "French disease" and referred to the baldness that syphilis produced as a "French crown." To be "Frenchified" meant to have a venereal infection and a "French pig" was a venereal sore. The Russians blamed it on the Poles, who in turn called it the "German Disease." To the Dutch, it was Spaensche Pokken ("Spanish pox"). Once the disease was transmitted eastward to India, Japan and China, it emerged as the "Portuguese disease" and not surprisingly, Turks held Christians responsible. Finally, in the 16th century it received the designation "syphilis" which seemed to have universal appeal. The name derives from the name of a fabled syphilitic shepherd in the poem Syphilis, sive Morbus Gallicus by Italian poet Girolamo Fracastoro. This fable relates the story of the shepherd Syphilis whose blasphemy so angered the Sun God that he saddled poor Syphilis with an eponymous new disease.

Linguistic chauvinism dictates that not only is one's mother tongue "infected" by foreign influences, but that the alien languages are even responsible for the infections.

Howard Richler's latest book is Can I Have a Word With You? He can be reached at



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