It shames me to admit how many of the finest authors in English, my favourites among them, are not English by birth. Joseph Conrad for example, or Vladimir Nabokov. English was not even Conrad’s second language, let alone his first – it was his fourth or fifth. And that seems to have been true of Nabokov also.
James Joyce, on the other hand, I have never had any difficulty locating beyond the pale of authors writing in English, though he may well have been born speaking it. But now that Ireland is no longer England (it never was… but nowadays people are more conscious of the fact) I feel bereft of authors I’ve always taken for pukka Englishmen: Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw… the list goes on and on.
Sometimes it seems there’ll only be me and Shakespeare left – and Colonel Gaddaffi has denied me even the Bard of Avon as my fellow countryman. “He is the great Arab poet Sheikh Spear”, he once declared with characteristic chutzpah, shortly after the USAF bombed his tent.
What is it that makes English such a colourful and prizeworthy language as it flows off the pens of foreigners? And not just flowing off their pens, but cascading from their lips?
“I like talking English”, a Swedish friend of mine once confided. “You can say things in it you can’t in Swedish”.
I marvelled – both at the grammatical incompetence of Swedish to express (pace my friend) by-and-large unremarkable thoughts – and at how such fiercely patriotic folk could stoop to admitting such a thing in front of a foreigner.
Nowadays, knowing more Swedish than I did, I can confidently declare I have come across nothing in its grammar or vocabulary to shackle freedom of thought and expression. Swedes speak a language which, as their national author August Strindberg demonstrates, allows you to utter blasphemies of outrageous sophistication if you are so inclined. I’ve since come to wonder if my friend’s affinity for English didn’t have more to do with what the Danes say about life in Sweden: that whatever is not expressly forbidden is absolutely mandatory.
The Danes, of course, are fine ones to talk. They say things in English they wouldn’t say in their own language, or so I’m told on good authority. When I used to travel regularly to Copenhagen, there was a fashion for posters flaunting English in ways I found shockingly rude – and I am as tolerant and open-minded as an Englishman can be. For example, everywhere you’d come face-to-face with a bare bottom captioned with the single word “Pump”.
This is not actually a Danish word – though there’s one like it. Nor is it yet-another unfortunate assonance with an English word, like din fart (your speed) on a flashing traffic sign. No – it was the English word that was intended: Pump. The passer-by, whatever you might imagine, was being enjoined to buy the vendor’s sportswear.
Another Swedish acquaintance once remarked to me “That’ll put the cat among the penguins”. She couldn’t grasp why I laughed out loud at what she’d supposed was a mundane idiom. It still makes me chuckle when I think of it. It evokes the image of a flock of the pompous birds toppling like skittles this way and that as an unseen cat goes on the rampage.
I appraised her of the usual expression, but said I liked her version better and was determined to use it myself in future. My friend’s serendipity had given form to a far more expressive metaphor than the original. How was it that she could manifest such creativity in normal speech and not I?
For someone learning English it is not a hard mistake to make: what’s a bird beginning with “p”, ending in “n” and having an un-English diphthong following the letter “g”? Though we’d do well not to laugh too much. Few among my acquaintance, if shown a bird at random, can tell me its English name, unless it’s in the habit of easing itself on their window ledge.
The other day I saw an article in The Psychologist about the phenomenon of anarchic hand, otherwise known as “Dr Strangelove syndrome”, whereby a sufferer is afflicted by one particular hand performing unwanted actions. The name comes from the crippled Doctor, played by Peter Sellers in the eponymous film, experiencing a close brush with auto-strangulation. Now it so happens that a lesion on both sides of the brain, of the very sort which gives rise to anarchic hand, produces utilisation behaviour: compulsive actions triggered by the sheer availability of the wherewithal. This behaviour the patient is at no pains to control. Like the fictitious Sea-Food Diet: you see food – you eat it!
Let us summarise:
• One-sided lesion: rebellion of the affected hand.
• Two-sided lesion: no sense of rebellion, but inappropriate behaviour nonetheless.
Now the author of the article, Sergio Della Sala, a professor of cognitive neuroscience, gives little indication apart from his name that he is not writing in the language of his birth. He describes a patient with unilateral (as opposed to bilateral) brain damage as still having access to his inner Fat Controller.
This alludes of course to the man who sits in his comfy office and orders around poor Thomas the Tank Engine all over the countryside.
If Prof Della Sala wrote that in Italian, wouldn’t he be excommunicated or something? Like Sampson among the Philistines, with those few words he has elbowed aside the whole edifice of Western metaphysics, erected on such lofty concepts as Conscience, Mind, Soul and Spirit. Where now the Divine Spark, the immanent and the transcendent Godhead, the God-Within-Us and the Still Small Voice? Dethroned: and in their stead he gives us a metaphor from Toytown: trains for the brain – apt for the times we live in.
The learned professor explains that the function of the prefrontal cortex is to apply social considerations to the suppression, not the composition, of motor subroutines for the limbs. The process of putting these together for subsequent deployment is not, it appears, illuminated by consciousness. Accordingly the professor wonders if the human psyche doesn’t have a “free won’t”, rather than a free will.
Free Won’t? What a perverse, inverse concept! An irritant under the skin, pearl-encased, cast before us English swine. Elderly liberals like me, waistlines distended by a lifetime’s gorging on the civic windfalls of Liberty and Choice, have difficulty bending over to grasp it. But any child will appreciate its merits, leaping at the chance to own such a pearl of great price – a treasure in the counting-house of bargaining power with the grown-ups…
• I will if I can – but I won’t.
• I’m exercising my free won’t.
• How many free won’ts do I get?
Why can’t we ethnic English come up with such original and powerful turns of phrase? It cannot be the structure of our native language that thwarts us. Do you suppose it is some deficiency or other in our English brains?