Mumbai or Beijing duck, sir?

Fancy some roast Beijinese tonight?

Actually, my subject today isn’t gastronomy but language. Or, to be precise, the linguistic imperialism to which the English language submits much too meekly for my taste.

People are oblivious to the threat of linguistic extinction or at least degeneration, but the threat does exist – as it has always existed for every lingua franca.

That’s why I watch out for signs of erosion caused by both domestic ignorance and foreign interference. This isn’t to say that English should stand still.

Language develops, and a good job too. Organisms that stop developing start dying, and language is no different in that respect. However, not all changes are to be welcomed.

We should accept with but token resistance only organic developments, those occurring within the language as used by educated native speakers.

Changes brought about by uneducated speakers must be fought tooth and nail because by and large they’re reductive, shrinking rather than expanding the language.

Thus, when Kevin says ‘masterful’ when he means ‘masterly’, or when Sharon says ‘appraise’ instead of ‘apprise’, or when Lee uses ‘momentarily’ in the sense of ‘in a moment’ rather than ‘for a moment’, they ought to be corrected and told in no uncertain terms never to mangle English again.

A stern letter to the Department of Education wouldn’t go amiss either. If you don’t teach pupils their own language, the letter should say, what on earth do you teach them?

How to use condoms and how the British Empire was evil? Don’t worry about it, pupils can pick that kind of learning out of the ambient air, it’s all over the place. Tell them to pick up NHS leaflets and a copy of The Guardian, they’ll get all the information they need to get through life as fully paid-up morons.

Then use the time thus saved on teaching them their own language. Perhaps a foreign tongue or two would be useful as well, but now I know I’m asking too much.

Foreign influences should ring alarm bells too, selectively. We mustn’t forget that a massive influx of foreign borrowings has given English by far the greatest vocabulary in the world, and only a madman would find anything wrong with that.

However, I’m not talking about the foreign implants that have happened organically over centuries as a result of historical twists and turns or cultural exchange. (That sentence, for example, has seven words of foreign origin, and English would be poorer without them.)

Rather I have in mind changes that occur because they’re mandated for political reasons by foreign countries that shouldn’t have any jurisdiction over English.

Thus, to reinforce my richly merited reputation for abrasiveness, I refuse to refer to Peking as Beijing, although I can grudgingly accept Mumbai for Bombay.

The difference is clear-cut. Bombay is an Indian city and, if the Indians choose to rename it Mumbai, even old reactionaries like me have to grin and bear it. We may not like it, but we have no choice in the matter.

The Chinese, however, haven’t changed the name of their capital. They’ve just twisted our arm to say it in English to reflect more accurately its pronunciation in Chinese.

The only sensible reply to that demand should have been simple and to the point:

“Chaps, stick to your own language and never mind ours. Each language has its own traditional versions of foreign geographical names, and they often differ from what they are in their native habitat.

“Thus we say Paris, not Paree; Moscow, not Moskva; Rome, not Roma; Florence, not Firenze; Prague, not Praha. And we’ll bloody well say Peking because that’s how we’ve always said it. That’s it. See you at the noodle factory.”

English is actually the only language of those I know that has suffered this ignominious fate. The French and the Russians call the Chinese capital what they’ve always called it. None of this Beijing nonsense for them.

So what are we, Chop Suey? Of course the difference is that neither French nor Russian is an international language, and English is.

Thus it’s supposed to be vulnerable to international diktats – even though the French get away with referring to Wales as le pays de Galles. I know Galles sounds like Gaul, which makes it irresistible to the French – I’m just talking about the glaring inequity of it all.

I also obdurately pronounce the first syllable in Kenya as ‘kee’, not ‘keh’ – and some New Age nincompoops actually have the gall (that dread word again) to correct me.

This newfangled pronunciation came into being in 1963, when Kenya shed the shackles of the British Empire that, as all British schoolchildren today know, was unspeakably evil.

As part of that wicked rule, the British pronounced the name of a country in accordance with its etymology: it had been named after Mount Kenya, proudly featuring ‘kee’ as its first syllable.

But when Kenya became independent, its first president decided to change his name from Kamau to Kenyatta, to emphasise the blessed unity of his country and his person.

However, he pronounced his new name as Kehnyatta – and the country for which he had renamed himself then had to change the pronunciation of its name accordingly.

They are of course welcome to pronounce the name in Swahili as they see fit. They can call their country Koinya or Kinya or Kannia for all I care.

But, for as long as it’s spelled Kenya in English, I’ll pronounce it the way it was always pronounced when the British still tried to civilise the place. It’s not only countries but also languages that have traditions, and we ignore them at our peril.

There, I think I’ve committed enough hate crimes for one article. I just hope I’ll get away with a suspended sentence to be served in the community.

1 thought on “Mumbai or Beijing duck, sir?”

  1. A popular name for Mexican men is JESUS. English-speaking Americans beware your NOT SO fastidiously pronouncing the name as HEY-ZEUS.

Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.