Language

William Hartston seeks a single European phrasebook

The recent publication of four foreign language vocabularies in the Teach Yourself series gives us the opportunity to test the extent of cultural integration in Europe. For while all of the books have been prepared to the same standardised format, the differences between them betray subtle distinctions between our European cousins.

The French, for example, are a taciturn bunch. Their salutations are restricted to bonjour, bonsoir, bonne nuit and salut, followed by a quick au revoir or a tout a l'heure when they take their leave. The Italians are no better, but the Germans and Spanish stop to ask Wie geht's? and reply Muy bien gracias, Y Usted? The Germans even go on to ask to be remembered to your wife.

The French terseness is perhaps only to be expected in people who put their word lists in alphabetical order of the English words. Italian, German and Spanish justifiably see themselves as languages to be translated out of, rather than into, so their lists are arranged with the foreign words in alphabetical order so that their English equivalent may be quickly found.

Differing standards of fastidiousness are revealed in the sections on pets. Neither the French nor Italians permit dogs to foul the grass, yet in either country gli escrementi del cane may still be scooped up with a ramasse-crottes. Germany and Spain have nothing to say about what dogs do on the grass, but while Spain has dog-dirt (la caca de perro) but no poop scoops, Germany has poop scoops but no dog dirt.

Important economic differences become apparent in the respective sections on questions. The Italians ask: "Which is your car?" The affluent Spanish ask: "How many cars do they have?" The French say "C'est une Renault." But the Germans, rather surprisingly, answer: "I don't have a car."

They have clearly spent all their money on the house, with their parquet floors and triple-glazing and underfloor heating, none of which are available in French, Italian or Spanish. Oddly enough, though, the Germans, like the Italians and French (but not the Spanish) do have a double garage, which suggests that they may have been lying about not having a car.

The slow and painful progress towards a single European phrase book clearly has a long way still to go.

Teach Yourself French Vocabulary (and the similar German, Spanish and Italian titles), Hodder & Stoughton, pounds 5.99 each.

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