Nobody in Europe speaks English

This statement is probably an exaggeration. But not nearly as much as its oft-used opposite, starting with ‘everybody’.

Britons who say it mean that it’s now possible to exchange basic Anglophone units of information with French waiters, Italian shopkeepers and Spanish museum guides.

Language is just a communication tool, isn’t it? If so, most Europeans are indeed capable of communicating in English – or producing write-ups such as the one above, on the wall of Rouen’s Palais de Justice.

The write-up does consummate an act of communication, although not without an effort on the part of a visiting Englishman. But if he’s willing to do a bit of Enigma-style deciphering, he can figure out what this eccentric prose means.

On the other hand, it also casts doubt on the premise. Yes, language is a means of communication. But it’s not just that.

If we bring down to earth the Biblical statement about the Word that was in the beginning, perhaps language is what creates and defines a nation. And if we believe the Babel story, then language is definitely what separates one nation from another – and not just linguistically.

English and Russian, for example, are different in exactly the same ways as the English and the Russians are different. One example: an English sentence is based on the verb, the action word, whereas the centre of a Russian sentence is the noun, surrounded by numerous modifiers.

A Russian sentence can function without a verb – just like a Russian man can function without doing anything much. (However, in jest, it’s possible to make a Russian sentence of nothing but eight verbs in a row. For the Russophones among you: посидели, поговорили, подумали, решили послать пойти купить выпить.)

Hence classical Russian literature, from Pushkin to Goncharov, from Gogol to Tolstoy, abounds in indolent layabouts who talk much and do little. On the other hand, Russian boasts a vast variety of affixation, ideally suited to conveying the shades of emotions in which the layabouts endlessly indulge.

English grammar is formally rigorous, which reflects a propensity for sequential logic and rational thought, just as its reliance on the verb reflects action-oriented pragmatism. The set word order of the English language can only be violated for stylistic effect, while Russian word order follows no rules whatsoever and is entirely stylistic.

That stands to reason. For the Russians despise rigid forms into which their much-vaunted spirituality can be squeezed. Hence they’ve so far been unable to come up with stable statehood or reasonable legality.

Characteristically, Nikolai Lossky’s History of Russian Philosophy devotes 57 pages to the mystical thinker Soloviov and only two to all the Russian philosophers of law combined. Justice – defined as a set of codified laws, not arbitrary feelings – has never interested the Russians much.

According to Lossky (d. 1965), this disdain for form even penetrated the Russians’ gene pool, producing ill-defined facial features so different, say, from the chiselled North European profile. It’s as if, having drawn a sketch of a Russian face, God then went over it, smudging every line with his thumb.

Lossky’s observation may be too sweeping, but it’s certainly evident that the Russians’ amorphousness extends to the way they treat every public institution, political, legal or religious.

Pavel Florensky, the polymath thinker murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1937, commented on the Russian character in essentially the same way: “There is no sun in the Slavs, no transparency, no definition! Clarity and serenity are lacking… It seems to me that this is meaningfully related to their failure… to find the sublime in the here and now and not strain to seek it in the nonexistent or the far-away.”

All this explains why the genre of the rigorously argued philosophical essay is as alien to the Russians as it’s natural to the English. The English vocabulary is three times the size of Russian, which makes the language more precise: a concept can be fractured into many specific fragments, each expressing its own nuance.

Russian, on the other hand, is ideally suited to poetic expression. Poetry imposes discipline on the Russians willy-nilly, while the loose grammar and practically endless morphology of their language open up infinite poetic possibilities.

The morphology of Russian words is so rich phonetically that Russian poets don’t have to rely on consonant endings to produce rhymes: they can find them in the words’ roots themselves. That’s why rhyming patterns are more interesting and less obvious in Russian, and vers libre, though not nonexistent, is rare there. By contrast, rhymed English poetry can easily sound like doggerel.

To be sure, the English have produced more than their fair share of great poets (including the greatest of all, Shakespeare), but one almost has to be that to write superb verse in English. By contrast, Russian poets of even modest talents can often produce excellent poems – their language does much of the work by itself.

Because their language and therefore their mentality don’t encourage philosophical self-expression, Russian thinkers often seek refuge in poetry or the novel.

Dostoyevsky’s novels, for example, are basically philosophy minus the intellectual discipline of the essay. And Tolstoy, possibly the greatest artist among world novelists, often indulged in tedious philosophical asides of the kind that would have destroyed the prose of a lesser artist.

The Russians welcome that sort of mongrelisation – it capitalises on their strength, poetic language, while downplaying their weakness, intellectual amorphousness. But Tolstoy’s Western contemporaries reacted differently. For example, Flaubert, having read the first French translation of War and Peace, exclaimed indignantly, “Il se répète! Il philosophise!

So yes, an increasing number of Europeans and even Russians are now able to communicate in English, after a fashion. But to speak English for real one has to have the mental, emotional and spiritual makeup the language reflects or – arguably – creates.

Some – I’d like to suggest self-servingly – may perhaps be able to achieve this without being raised in an English-speaking country. A certain intellectual and emotional predisposition developed by lifelong study and decades of using English almost exclusively may see to that.

But such rare cases apart, I stand by the title above. If you juxtapose two sentences, “Everybody in Europe speaks English” and “Nobody in Europe speaks English”, the second is closer to the truth.

2 thoughts on “Nobody in Europe speaks English”

  1. “English grammar is formally rigorous, which reflects a propensity for sequential logic and rational thought, just as its reliance on the verb reflects action-oriented pragmatism.”

    Bulgarian and English the ONLY TWO languages synthetic in nature? Word order has meaning.

  2. A fascinating essay…

    As an English teacher to adults, here in Paris, I am seeing increasing numbers of Russian and Ukrainian clients.

    What impresses me most about these students is their absolute commitment to the learning process – they rival the Far East Asians in this respect.

    Yes, they have an unusual reluctance to relinquish the Russian cliché of not using definite articles…and emotion and nuance can be difficult to explain in the illogical patterns of English grammar and idioms…but I recognise a serious people when I meet them. They still possess, in Soyuz, the only craft capable of launching men into space and returning them; and some of the women are far from ‘ill defined’ as they hog the front rows of my classes…

    …I even know a certain Russian gentleman whose English erudition contributed to a memorable lunch, on a sunny afternoon in the Loiret!

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