It Has Always Been There

In a bed at night in a Paris hotel a few decades ago I could hear a couple of men talking in the corridor. I thought they were speaking English but I realised it was another language, one that did not even resemble English. I was hearing clear snatches of English though, and I continued to hear them until I fell asleep.

Shortly after this I realised that all languages were English, it was just a matter of how you listened, where you put the gaps between the words. A bit later I realised that all languages were your own language – this would apply to Estonians, Arabs, Vietnamese etc. Speakers of these languages listening to speakers of other languages could hear their own language providing they listened in the right way and were prepared to put the gaps in at the same speed as the speakers were forming sentences.

This went some way to explaining how it was possible, before everything had been explored, to travel to remote places and to find tribal groups, hitherto completely cut off from ‘civilisation’, who spoke English as if they were English. The members of these groups did not, of course, regard themselves as English because none of had been born in England. Nevertheless, when they spoke, and when their visitors listened carefully, strings of English words in sentences could be heard and understood.

Sometimes it is possible to get a false positive. I was on a train near Cardiff late in the 20th Century, idly overhearing two women talking in Welsh. At a certain point I clearly and unmistakeably heard the phrase ‘washing machine’. A couple of minutes later I heard ‘Hoover’. I was on the verge of berating myself for not being able to follow the speakers more closely when I saw the mistake I had made: it appears to be the case that Welsh speakers may use English terms when they refer to things that have emerged since the settling of the the Welsh language. This is not because there is no term in Welsh for ‘washing machine’ (peiriant golchi), it is, rather, a pidgin formation, perhaps a matter of convenience. I had rather complacently assumed, after ‘washing machine’, that I had put the gaps in the right places and enabled myself to understand the English that lay beneath the Welsh. My mother was Welsh and spoke the language and I think this may, in some obscure way, have limited my capacity to find the submerged English within the conversation on the train. It may be that when the overheard language, in this example Welsh, is salted with straightforwardly pronounced words from first-level English that the brain, otherwise linguistically elastic, cannot process two conflicting sets of gap-insertion conventions, one based on effortless acceptance, the other on the real-time re-gapping of the so-called ‘foreign’ language.

I have discussed my findings with linguists and they have suggested that I may have been unconsciously clustering groups of speech sounds in order to make words that I wish to hear. I understand the psychological principles that are being proposed but am inclined to believe that if this is the case then it is not my wishes that I am detecting but those of others – the participants in the many exchanges that I am able to understand.

I would add in my defence that this psychological hypothesis fails completely to explain the fact that it is not intermittent clusters of English words that I hear but entire conversations consisting of protracted, properly grammatical exchanges.

I am not translating. All languages lie beneath other languages. They are distinguished by differentials in stress and phonetic clusters. There are no words that are not composed in this way and consequently no words that cannot be understood, providing that the listener is able to relinquish conventional modularisations.

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