An English-Language Tsunami washes over Switzerland

[THE FIRST AND ONLY ARTICLE TO BE PUBLISHED IN ENGLISH IN THE NZZ AM SONNTAG]

Latest Federal Government figures confirm what we already knew: English is the lingua franca. Mispronounce it, re-invent it – the English-speaker doesn't mind, writes Paul Bilton

Perhaps it is not ideal to compare the success of English to a tsunami. Not only is a tsunami destructive, but it is also a Japanese word. However, using the word tsunami illustrates why English is successful. The English phrase 'tidal wave' was inadequate as a tsunami is neither tidal nor a wave. Thus English, and many other languages, happily borrowed from Japanese without batting an eyelid.

In fact 95% of English has been borrowed (or more accurately stolen) from unsuspecting tongues for centuries. Sometimes we disguise the theft with a change of pronunciation like 'miserable', or alter the spelling like 'petty cash' (petit). Sometimes we are open about it, like the wording under every street name in England that is a dead-end: 'cul-de-sac'. However, it must be admitted that no French-speaker would recognize the way the British pronounce 'culdy sack'.

German has also provided English with words, like kindergarten (the plural of which is two kindergartens and no capital 'k'), abseil (pronounced 'absale') because to down-rope just sounded too silly. More recently 'zeitgeist' has proved better than 'spirit of the time' and 'schadenfreude' has long been in the English dictionary, defined as joy at another's downfall. The English verb 'gloat' simply does not hold the power and mystique of schadenfreude.

This is the point of all languages – to empower the user with words that convey information rapidly and communicate accurately. If your own language does not have the exact word, why not use one from another language? Even Swiss-German! In English there is no better word for a quick and temporary overnight camp than a bivouac.

Thus, it is with some surprise that the Swiss government has followed what the French have been doing for years and ban English from their language. Socialist member of the Swiss parliament, French speaker, Didier Berberat demanded that the country’s languages be given priority over English. By the end of May government departments must have names that are "clear, logical and formulated only in the national languages". The rather oddly named 'FedPol', the Federal Police, has to go, although it sounds more German to me than English. The same fate awaits 'Swissmint' – not a Swiss version of After Eights, but the government department that mints those delicious francs.

Why were Anglicised names chosen in the first place? Clearly somebody thought it was a good idea. FedPol is used for French, German and Italian and sounds more user-friendly than Eidgenössische Polizei. In the UK, car manufacturer Audi has used German in its press and TV advertising for the last 20 years. Few Britons actually know what "Vorsprung durch Technik" means, but that is not important. Audi want to project an image of German engineering quality and using a German tag line is their highly successful way of achieving this. Just like McDonald's "I'm lovin' it" puts over a feeling to those who do not have any idea what it means or that it is grammatically flawed.

The strength of English is that it is a totally flexible and extendible language with no guardians to oversee its development; a sort of open-source language without copyright - the truly free language for the free market. There is no Duden or English Academy. Au contraire, the editors of English dictionaries (lexicographers) listen to what people are writing and saying and if a new word is in common use, it is included. A recent addition to the Oxford dictionary 'Petrolhead' is an amusing and effective example, meaning a car and driving enthusiast. 'Rubbish' was once only a noun, but recent usage has officially made it a verb and adjective too.

Switzerland has developed its own version. A 'Handy' sounds English but it is not. English speakers had not thought of making an adjective into a noun and they are called mobile phones ('mobile' for short) in the UK and cell phones in the USA. But it goes further; SMS (short message service) is called just that in Switzerland, but not in the UK where it is called 'text messaging'. From this comes a new regular verb 'to text', the past of which is texted. The Swiss have happily used their own version of 'Swinglish' for years; words like 'Manchesters', a 'Dancing', and a 'Smoking' are not English at all. Others like 'Robidog', 'Shopville' and 'foodä' show how flexible English can be.

What is the English-speaker's opinion of this butchery of their language? Surprisingly, unlike French-speakers, we really do not mind too much. Yes, there are times when Swiss advertising slogans leave us wondering. My personal favourite is the ski clothing brand Snow Fun, which sounds to me like the short form of 'it is no fun'. As a general rule we would rather hear chewed and mispronounced English than speak a foreign language, so we cannot complain.

As a Brit I cannot claim that the tidal wave of English is our doing. Without the United States, there would be no debate about the English language. Today English is so popular that we have the strange situation that there are three times as many non-native speakers of English in the world as native speakers. This week's figures from the Federal Statistics Office confirm the rise of English in the Swiss workplace by 37% during the decade ending in 2000. In the Canton of Zurich a remarkable 34% of employees use English in their work.

Like it or not, English is the language of the business and technological world. A tsunami is impossible to stop; its power is massive and could be harnessed with great effect. After all, it is much more enjoyable to ride a wave than be washed away by it.