December 14, 2006

Native languages of United Nations Secretaries-General

A new Secretary-General of the United Nations was sworn in today. The native languages spoken by the holders of this post up to the present day have been:

Norwegian(Trygve Lie, Norway, 1946-1952)
Swedish(Dag Hammarskjöld, Sweden, 1953-1961)
Burmese(U Thant, Burma, 1961-1971)
German(Kurt Waldheim, Austria, 1972-1981)
Spanish(Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, Peru, 1982-1991)
Egyptian Arabic(Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Egypt, 1992-1996)
Akan(Kofi Annan, Ghana, 1997-2006)
Korean(Ban Ki-Moon, Republic of Korea, 2007--)

Amidst all the talk of English as a global language that is wiping all other languages out, and notwithstanding the obvious fact that every Secretary-General has to give speeches in English, and granting that Kofi Annan's English is of near-native quality, it might be worth noting that we have here a top position in a US-headquartered organization that no native speaker of English has ever held, not even for a day.

Update: Of course, there are some further generalizations that put this fact in context, as several people have written to me to point out. One is that in the Cold War days, it was understood that the Secretary-General had to be from a country not aligned with either the Soviet Union or the USA and Britain, and that didn't really leave an English-speaking (or Russian-speaking) country for a Secretary-General to be from. And the other is that no national language of one of the permanent members of the UN Security Council is on the list above.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at December 14, 2006 05:13 PM