Mind your language, please

30 May 1999

According to various almanacs, there are some 100 languages designated as "official" by governments world wide.

The United Nations has five official languages - English, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese and Russian If English is the sole official language of the UN, it will save US$250 million a year. It takes that much to maintain interpreters, translators and public reports in the other four official languages.

Mandarin is the mother tongue of about 1.3 billion people. As for English, there are fewer native speakers of the language than Chinese or Hindi but it is the lingua Franca of the world.

Japanese is the official language of only Japan whereas Malay is the official language of Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and Brunei.

Arabic is the official language of 25 nations, Portuguese seven countries, Spanish 21, and French, though it has fewer speakers than any other principal languages (100 million people), is the official tongue of 32 countries.

The English Language experts claim, in such a dubious shape at present that in England, the country which invented it, almost nobody noticed when Queen Elizabeth II, speaking in the plummy accents of privilege, recently committed a grammatical crime on nationwide television.

T.R.Reid, the Washington Post's London bureau chief, writing in the outlook section on the Post on Sunday, March 21, says "The speaker wounding the Queen's English was none other than the Queen herself. In her annual address to her subjects - a speech that is presumably vetted endlessly by the Buckingham Palace staff - Queen Elizabeth II observed that the "young can sometimes be wiser than us".

Than us? Reid wondered: Is this proper English? Reid said he decided to find out from the Oxford Guide to English usage, and found to his dismay that Her Majesty was wrong! Reid, not without amusement, added that he would have thought those "crisp, proper English accents" would naturally be used to recite, proper English.

The American fascination with perceived British erudition probably helps explain why language-rich movies about Britain such as Shakespeare in Love and Elizabeth received 20 nominations for Oscars.