Saturday, March 7, 2015

Less than an universal language

The pace of globalization, whether regarding products or language, is not uniform throughout the world.  As many American tourists have discovered to their frustration, not everybody speaks English, even in civilized in Europe.  For example, in Budapest, even though it is the capital city, many store employees do not understand or speak English.

This issue came up in a recent trademark dispute between the French Chronopost and DHL. One of the matters in dispute was whether the term webshipping would be understood by the French to imply delivery of products.  The judges ruled that while the term web clearly referred to the Internet, the average French speaker in 2000 would connect the word shipping to movement by ships, not to mailing products in general.  In other words, shipping was an exotic foreign word, not a description of services.

The question arises whether such a ruling would be issued in other countries.  For example, In Israel, where English instruction begins in 4th grade, I strongly doubt it.  English is firmly ingrained in the daily language even in those less than successful in studies.  I suspect Germans would also have no problem understanding the term.  By contrast, it is possible that many native Spanish speakers, especially those in isolated areas in South America, would not know the meaning of the word.

The issue of the assumption of knowledge of a foreign language predates the Internet.  Tolstoy’s famous French dialogue in War and Peace was perfectly understandable to any pre-War World I Russian upper class individual, but significantly less those educated in the Soviet Era.  Thus, modern translations require explanation of the sentences in French.   Also, the time when a writer could quote Latin and be understood by the readers ended some 50 years ago.  However, there may be some English people educated in private schools that do understand them.  Then, there is the classic joke about David Levi, a former Israeli Foreign Minister who spoke French but not English.  Accordingly, it is told that he once returned an oven that he bought because it didn’t cook the of (chicken in Hebrew) when it turned in on off.   One can even argue the Internet language itself, so obvious to a certain generation, is still a foreign language to a significant percentage of the population.

I would be interested in hearing your impression of whether people where you live generally understand English.

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