February 12, 2007


The Free Library of Philadelphia panel I was part of with fellow Language Logger Mark Liberman (and the delightful Erin McKean and Ben Yagoda) last week was fun, but all that week and currently I have been quietly stewing over this article in the Wall Street Journal from last Monday.

Apparently, Beijing is wrong in correcting its myriad signs in "funny English" because they are, for we Westerners, "one of the joys of China"!

The article is about how in preparation for the 2008 Olympics, a squadron of "linguistic monitors" will be correcting English-language signs that have long been legion in Beijing, written by people with rudimentary command of "English As She Is Spoke."

Make no mistake, the signs are exquisitely off. A toilet for the handicapped will be marked as for "Deformed Person." A men's restroom is marked "Genitl Men." A warning of a slippery road will read "To take notice of safe: the slippery are very crafty."

It reminds me of a priceless book written in 1855 by one Pedro Carolino, "Guide of Conversation in Portuguese and English," (see a modern abridged edition here) in which the poor author clearly has no more acquaintance with English than most of us have with Albanian, filling almost 200 pages with word lists, short dialogues (such as the likes of conversing with someone in hospital titled "For to Visit a Sick") and "familiar phrases" such as "Stone what roll heapeth up not foam" (i.e., in case this is not clear, "A rolling stone gathers no moss").

I have broken out Carolino's book at dinner parties for many a year now, and resort to it whenever I am in need of a good, long, hard laugh.

So, I "get" the joys of "off" English. However, I get itchy when the Wall Street Journal article depicts Westerners bemoaning "the loss of a source of amusement" in the cleaning up of Beijing's funny signs. A certain strain in nominally bien-pensant Westerner thought treats other cultures as diverting dioramas in neglect of remembering that the people in question are human beings with the same needs for dignity as we cherish.

Some years ago I was participating in a documentary for BBC in Bluefields, Nicaragua, a poor town where the locals live in subsistence poverty. We were there to explore the sign language that children there have developed, long a tasty topic among linguists. However, we were spending a week in a place where money was scarce, substance abuse was endemic, and at nightclubs local young women regularly sought paid sex with foreign men as one of the only ways to supplement incomes that were hopelessly inadequate otherwise.

In such a place, unsurprisingly the roads were mostly unpaved, full of thigh-deep potholes that made them trickly to navigate in motor vehicles even on dry days. I will never forget bouncing through such potholes in a car with one of the cameramen for the documentary, with his leather-clad Oxonian accent, regaling us with the sentiment that "I hope they don't pave these roads like they're saying they want to just to make the road smoother to the hotel they want to build -- since then this would start becoming like Jamaica where everybody works at the hotel. It would destroy the way of life here."

I see -- the Third World goings-on were "real," "colorful," "diverse." Unemployment among the men was rampant, but that was better than them having somewhere nearby to take jobs and earn money with few formal skills. And the local women working at the hotel would be "inauthentic" in comparison to their offering their bodies to, as it happened, him when he came to visit.

There is some of this in the idea that Beijingers should preserve their funny English signs to amuse Westerners blowing through. Anyone who sees any sophistication in this, I presume, would have no problem with the notion of signs in hilariously bad Chinese plastered all over New York or San Francisco.

Posted by John McWhorter at February 12, 2007 04:22 AM