David Crystal works from his home in Holyhead, North Wales, as a writer, editor, lecturer and broadcaster. He has published extensively on the history and development of English, including The Stories of English, Evolving English and Spell It Out: The Singular Story of English Spelling. He and his son Ben joined forces to co-write You Say Potato and The Oxford Illustrated Dictionary of Shakespeare. He held a chair at the University of Reading for ten years, and is Honorary Professor of Linguistics at the University of Bangor. He was 'Master of Original Pronunciation' at Shakespeare's Globe in London for its productions of Romeo and Juliet and Troilus and Cressida in 2004-5, and has since acted as an accent consultant for other such productions worldwide.
Listen to how thousands of people around the world say the word 'potato'.
Wherever you go in the English-speaking world, there are linguistic riches from times past awaiting rediscovery. All you have to do is choose a location, find some old documents, and dig a little.
Beloved children's author Roald Dahl invented over 500 words and character names. We've mixed them up with some of the weird and wonderful English dialect words from David Crystal's The Disappearing Dictionary to see if you can tell the difference.
On Mundolingua - 4 months ago
Last week I finally managed to get to see the amazing Mundolingua - the language museum in Paris founded by Mark Oremland a couple of years ago. I don't use the adjective lightly. He has managed to pack into two floors of a small building a remarkable array of pictures, books, artefacts, and interactive facilities relating to language, languages, and linguistics, all presented in a user-friendly and multingual way.
I had a personal interest in making my visit, as Mark describes his museum as a three-dimensional representation of my Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language. That may have been the starting-point, but in its range of illustrations the museum now goes well beyond what is in my book. And the ingenuity of the presentations has to be experienced.
Mundolingua is a must-see. It's on the south bank, and easy to find. Aim for the church of Saint Sulpice. Stand in front of it and Rue Servandoni is just around the corner on your right. A few metres down and Mundolingua is on your right. At the other end of the street are the Luxembourg gardens.
The museum is open every day between 10:00 and 19:00, with a modest entrance fee of just a few euros. Don't rush the visit. There is so much material that a language buff could spend a whole day here - or even two - exploring the collections in detail. The day I was there a group of visitors was sitting around a sociolinguistic exhibit with headphones, happily listening to usages in various languages. Another couple was by the phonetics chart copying the IPA sounds represented there.
I spent some time trying the braille quiz: a chart in front of you gives you all the braille letter codes, and then you place your hands under a cover and feel the message hidden there. I thought it would be easy and found it really challenging.
Mark has succeeded where other language museum projects, conceived on a larger scale, have failed. In a post on this blog in 2013I described some of them, all of which have not gone ahead, usually for lack of financial support. Mundolingua is the exception, and it needs all the support it can get. The day I visited there were quite a few people looking around, but there are days, I was told, when there are no visitors at all. So spread the news. Tour Eiffel? Tick. Louvre? Tick. Mundolingua? Tick.
On a dialect labour of love, and a Hopkins illustration - 4 months ago
The Disappearing Dictionary (2015) has just been published in paperback. It was my attempt to celebrate the amazing English Dialect Dictionary compiled by Joseph Wright over a century ago - a dictionary that has been unjustly neglected. But not any more. Wright has been brought into the internet age by a team from the English Department at the University of Innsbruck (Dr Reinhard Heuberger, Dr Manfred Markus), who have put the whole work (all six volumes of it) online in a beautifully presented searchable website at EDD Online. It has taken them ages, but what a resource we now have! Anyone interested in English dialects will revel in it.
I revelled, a few months ago. I was asked to give the annual Gerard Manley Hopkins lecture at Liverpool Hope University, so I chose as my subject to follow up the clue seen in a letter written by Hopkins to his mother on 13 March 1888:
'I am making a collection of Irish words and phrases for the great English Dialect Dictionary, and am in correspondence with the editor.'
No copy of what he sent has been found in his collected papers. Several scholars, as a consequence, have tried to find them all, but with around 117,500 senses in the Dictionary as a whole, many of which take up many columns, it was not an easy task. Norman Mackenzie was one who began to wade through the EDD, but gave up. Norman White, in English Studies 68/4 (1987) found 89 locations. Did he find them all?
Hopkins must have impressed Wright, for he is not listed in the lists of voluntary readers or correspondents, but in the 'list of unprinted collections of dialect words quoted in the dictionary by the initials of the compilers'. A member of the dialect elite, in other words. And an early one: Wright wasn't approached to be editor until mid-1887 (there's a letter from Professor Skeat, 13 June, reprinted in his wife's biography, The Life of Joseph Wright), so Hopkins must have been one of the earliest contributors if he was in correspondence just nine months later.
Thanks to EDD Online, it proved an easy matter to find a named contributor. I simply typed the string G.M.H. into the appropriate search box, and up came the answer. There are 92 entries attributed to him. Norman White was almost right.
Wright used 49 of Hopkins' examples; the rest are shown simply as G.M.H. In one entry (become) it's unclear just how much of the preceding text came from Hopkins. In (chiuc) and (uncared), Hopkins is the only evidence for the entry.
Other points. The list shows an awareness of dialect grammar (containing grammatical words such as and, be, but), as well as lexical items. Two entries are observations rather than illustrations: avail of, hockey. Three entries show his personal background very well: bloody wars, boy, and especially (and amusingly) craw. And most of the entries relate to words beginning with A, B, and C. Evidently other events in Hopkins' life soon took him away from dialects.
able for, fit to cope withIreland. Ah, he'd never be able for the attornies, Paddiana (1848) I.28
admire at Limerick. 'Tis to be admired at - such a long distance traversed between Ireland and America so fast.
afraid, conj, lest, for fear thatDublin. Run indoors, God bless you, for afraid the cows'd run over you [said to a child by a man driving cows]
after, prep, behindIreland. I left him after me.
after, when used with a progressive tense to indicate a completed action. Ireland. I am after dining [I have dined]
to be after, (5) the word also conveys the idea of a state or condition in the immediate future, and (6) of a recently completed action(5) Ireland. The child is after the measles. (6) I am after my dinner.
again, adv, at a future time, by-and-byIreland. I didn't do it yet, but I'll do it again.
alannah, sb, Ireland. my childAlana, properly 'my child'; used as a friendly or affectionate word of address, especially to the speaker's junior
all out, adv, completely, altogether, fullyIreland. Not far from sixty [years of age], if he was not sixty all out.
and, conj, to introduce a nominative absolute, sometimes with ellipsis of v.Ireland. See all the people and they laughing! How could I say it an' me an me oath? [said by a witness before the Times Allegations Commission] Kildare. I walked in the garden, and hid [it] in bloom [it being in bloom], Oral ballad.
any more, for the futureNorthern Ireland. A servant being instructed how to act, will answer, 'I will do it any more'.
arrah, int, an exclamation of surpriseTipperary. 'Arrah, sweet myself!' said a youth after making a good hit at cricket, as he thought, unheard.
at, prep, motion to, arrival at a place or conditionIreland. To call at [visit a person].
at all, used in positive clauses; absolutely, altogetherIreland. It's the greatest fun at all.
at all, at allLimerick. GMH [no example]
avail of, to take advantage of. Ireland. Used freely in all newspapers.
ballyrag, v, to abuse violently, to scold or revile in bad languageIreland. GMH [no example]
bang, v, to beat, surpass, excel, outdoIreland. That bangs Bannagher, and Bannagher bangs the devil [Bannagher is a town in King's County]
be, prep, forming the first unemphatic syllable of oathsIreland. Begorra, bedad, begonnies. If your bees are as big as ponies and your hives no bigger than ours are, how do your bees get into your bee-hives? - Begob, that's their own affair, Pop. story. [also used as the example at begob]
become, v, in phr. it well becomesTipperary. Ironical phr. 'Well becomes me, &c., that is, 'And a fool I am for my pains.' It may govern a v. with to, expressing what it was that was foolishly done; as, ' 'Twell becomes me to have taken all that trouble.' (GMH) [unclear which bits are GMH's]
bedad, int, An exclamation, a disguised oath. Ireland. GMH [no example]
begob, int, uses the same example as in be above
begonnies, int, an exclamationGMH [no example shown here: see be above]
begorra, int [no example shown here: see be above]
behold, v, in phr. behold you, and behold you of it, mark you, do not overlook this point. Ireland. GMH [no example]
bet, v, past tense of beatIreland. GMH [no example, and no other Irish example given]
better, adv, in phr, I am better to, I had better, it is better for me to. Ireland. GMH [no example]
beyond, adv, yonder, outsideGMH [no example]
beyond, in phr, beyond the beyond(s), unexpected, incredible, out of the way; a very out-of-the-way place. GMH [no example]
blarney, sb, persuasive talk, flattery, humbug. GMH [no example]
Blarney-stone, in phr, to have taken a lick of the Blarney-stone, to have the gift of flattery or persuasiveness. Ireland. A certain stone in the walls of Castle Blarney in Co. Cork, the kissing or licking of which is fabled to convey the gift of blarney.
blarney, v, to flatter, persuade; to wheedleIreland. GMH [no example]
blood, sb, in phr. blood or blur and ounsGMH [no example]
bloody wars, adj, serious consequences; also used as an exclamation of annoyance. Ireland. If the Pope makes Dr. X. Archbishop there'll be bloody wars.
bo, sb, in bo-man, a name used to frighten children. Ireland. GMH N.I. [no example, and no other Irish example given]
bodach, sb, an old man; a churlIreland. GMH [no example]
bold, adj, Of children: naughty fractious, ill-behaved. Ireland. GMH [no example]
boodie, sb, in boodie-man, a bugbear, a bogeyIreland. GMH [no example, and no other Irish example given]
boreen, sb, a narrow lane, a byroad; a passage. Ireland. He hasn't sense enough to drive a pig down a boreen.
bosthoon, sb, a big, awkward fellow; a witless, senseless, tactless fellow. Ireland. GMH [no example]
bouchal, sb, a boy; a youth or young man. Ireland. two instances of GMH [no example]; also buachailin [no example]
boy, sb, a male human being of any age and condition, esp, if unmarriedTipperary. There's a boy over from the Pope, and Archbishop Croke went on his knees to him [said by a Tipperary man of Monsignior Persico, the Commissary Apostolic 1888]
bring, v, in bring and take, fetch and carry. Ireland. GMH [no example, and no other Irish example given]
bugaboo, sb, a hobgoblin, ghost; an imaginary object of terror. Ireland. GMH [no example, and no other Irish example given]
busy, adj, in to be busy growing, to grow fast. Ireland. The corn is busy growing.
but, conj, just, only, though; used as an exclamation. Louth. It is but! - It isn't but!
but, in phr, be done or damned but, actually, really; used as an exclamation. Ireland. They won't send you a bailiff with the writ; no, but it's by post it would come, be done but.
cailey, sb, a call, friendly visit, chat, gossip among neighbours. Meath, Dublin, Kildare. To go on caley [to go about gossiping]
call, v, in call to, to call on, pay a visitIreland. GMH [no example]
call, v. in call to, to check, chideIreland. Call to this fellow; he is hitting me.
care, v, to take care of, to tend. Ireland. To care a horse or a room.
carry, v, to take, convey, conduct. Ireland. 'If you are going out will you carry us with you?' said by schoolboys to their master. That is the wagonette we carried to Powerscourt.
castle-top, sb, a peg-top. Galway. GMH [no example]
cess, sb, a rate, tax. Ireland. County cess, borough cess.
cess, sb, luck, success, gen. used in comb, Bad cess, bad luck. Ireland. GMH [no example]
chiuc, sb, Ireland. A hook or sickle to shear or cut grass with. Antrim. Go and get me the chiuc till I shear some grass. [sole example for the entry]
clifted, pp, fallen or thrown over a cliff. Ireland. GMH [no example]
clout, sb, a nail. Ireland. Heavy shoe-nail.
coat, sb, in phr with his coat buttoned behind, looking like a fool. Ireland. Here comes Paddy from Cork with his coat buttoned behind.
cod, v, to sham, humbug, hoax, impose upon, lie. Ireland. GMH [no example]
cod, sb, a humbug; a hoax, imposition, lie. Ireland. GMH [no example]
cod, v, to sham, humbugIreland. GMH [no example]
cod, sb, a simpleton, dupe. Ireland. GMH [no example]
compliment, sb, a favour conferring an obligation; the obligation so contracted. Dublin. 'He is not a man that I should like to be under a compliment to' - said of someone of whom it was proposed to ask a favour.
conacre, sb, to hire or let land 'in conacre'. Ireland. GMH [no example]
conacre, v, the sub-letting of land to a tenant, who acquires the use of the land to raise one or two crops and nothing further. Ireland. GMH [no example]
convenient, adj, near. Ireland. GMH [no example]
couple, sb, a few, several, more than two. Ireland. 'I cursed (or 'was drunk') a couple of times' means I have done so now and then.
craw, sb, in comp craw-thumper, a term of ridicule for a very devout person, who, in praying, beats his breast. Ireland. Lit. one who thumps, heavily beats, the craw, the breast, in saying the confiteor or other prayers.
creel, sb, a turf-cart, crateIreland. GMH [no example]
creepie, sb, a low, three-legged stoool, gen. used by children. Ireland. GMH [no example]
croft, sb, a glass water-bottle for the table or bedroom. Ireland. GMH [no example]
cruel, adv, used as an intensive: exceedingly, very. Dublin. I'm powerful weak but cruel easy [I am very weak but quite at my ease], said by a sickman. A cruel good lady.
cruiskeen, sb, a small jug for holding liquor; a pitcher. Ireland. GMH [no example]
cry, v, in phr cry the mare, a ritual shouted by the first farm-workers in a parish to finish the harvest. Ireland. GMH [no example]
go with, v, fall over. Waterford. GMH [no example, and no other Irish example given]
have, v, followed by a direct object and pp.Ireland. 'I am sorry I have kept your book so long.' 'It is no matter: I had it read.' That woman has me annoyed. She has my heart broke.
hockey, sb, a harvest-home or supper; the last load in harvest. Ireland. The game also called 'Hooky' and 'Crying the Mare'.
let, v, used as an auxiliary with the second person imperative, instead of do.Limerick. Let you go this way and I will go that.
let, v, in let round a dicad, to recite a decade of the rosary. Ireland. GMH [no example, and no other Irish example given]
let on, v, to pretend, feign; to make a pretence or show of. Ireland. One of the conspirators who murdered Caesar 'let on to pleas for his brother.' 'I didn't let on to hear,' I pretended not to hear.
let, v, to give out, emit; to utter, give forth. Ireland. He let a shout.
on, in phr to blame on, to lay the blame on. Ireland. GMH [no example]
rise, v, to raise, cause to rise; to lift up; to rouse, stir up. Ireland. They rose a cheer. God will rise me a friend.
shall, v, used in the 1st person to express will or intention. Dublin. He should have his meat tender. His meat should be tender.
shall, v, used to express insistence or duty. Dublin. 'Leave it in my room.' 'I shall, Ireland.'
times, sb, in phr a couple of times, occasionally; more than once.Ireland. GMH [no example, and no other Irish example given]
uncared, adj, Ireland. Untended; uncared for. GMH [no example, and no other Irish example given] [sole reference for the entry]
will, aux v. Preterite. Used instead of 'could'. Ireland. They had fever on board and they would not be allowed to land [and the people on shore would not allow them to]
will, aux v. Used for 'should have'. Ireland. 'I sat where I should have seen him' becomes 'where I would see him'
yees, pron, you; used when speaking to more than one person. Dublin. How long did yiz get?
yerrah, int, an exclamation of surprise. Limerick. Yerra, be aisy! [Come, be easy.]
On the reported death of the full-stop / period - 4 months ago
It's amazing how a small point (literally) makes the headlines. Last week I gave a talk at the Hay Festival about my book on punctuation, Making A Point. Towards the end, I illustrated the way the use of the full-stop (period) was changing in fast-moving dialogue settings on the Internet and in short-messaging services - being omitted at the ends of statements, and used only when the writer wanted to add an emotional charge to what's being said. This sort of thing:
John's coming to the party [statement of fact]John's coming to the party. [Oh dear!]
My general point was to warn people against accepting uncritically the kinds of definition often made when children are being taught punctuation, such as 'A sentence must end with a full-stop'. It's important to draw their attention to the limitations of such a definition. To start with, it should be 'A statement...', contrasting the full-stop with other forms of sentence-final punctuation (?, !, ...), but it's also important to acknowledge that there are many exceptions. Look around you: public signs (WAY OUT - elliptical for the statement 'This is the way out'), for instance, typically don't end with full-stops. Headlines in newspapers don't end with full-stops (these days - a different story in Victorian times). Abbreviations such as BBC and Mr dropped their full-stops during the last century. And on the Internet, in certain settings where it's obvious from the layout that a sentence has ended, they are being omitted.
As John Humphreys once said, in the Spectator, the job of a journalist is to simplify and exaggerate. And that's what happened. My point got reported on the front page of the Telegraph - front page, no less - and the online site had the headline 'Full stop falling out of fashion thanks to instant messaging'. Note the generalization. Whereas I was saying that the full-stop was changing in instant messaging (and the like), the paper reports it as changing everywhere because of instant messaging.
Unsurprisingly, as papers and radio programmes steal from each other all the time, Chinese-whisper-like, the drama increased. And when it got to the New York Times - the front page again - the headline read 'A Full Stop for Periods?' and the opening paragraph made a summary that then spread all over the globe: 'One of the oldest forms of punctuation may be dying'. And the writer went on:
The period ... is gradually being felled in the barrange of instant messaging that has become synonymous with the digital age
He used no full-stop at the end of his paragraph, or elsewhere in the article. It was a clever trope, but it went well beyond what I was saying, for there is no evidence at all that the full-stop is being less used in conventional writing, such as in newspaper articles. The writer's joke worked because he restricted his piece to single-sentence paragraphs. If he had used more than one sentence per paragraph he would soon have had to rely on the full-stop to make his writing easy to read.
So the full-stop is not dying, outside the circumstances I mentioned above. But in journalism, who cares about qualifying comments like that? Death always makes a good story, so why mess it up? And thus, in the last 24 hours, we see these headlines:
The period is dead - but so what? (Bostom Globe)Period coming to a full stop (The Straits Times) Has the period reached the point of no return? (San Diego Uninon-Tribune) The period is dead. Long live the period. (Huffington Post) Full stop? There is no point (The Telegraph, Calcutta)
Doubtless many more in the next 24. And my in-box is filling up with people who are wanting to draw my attention to the fact that the change in usage is context-restricted - which is of course what I was saying in the first place.
I'm hugely impressed by the fact that punctuation makes front-page news in a way that other aspects of language don't. But the journalistic treatment reinforces my main pedagogical point: that when children are being taught about punctuation, they need to be told about the mixed usage that is part of everyday orthographic experience, and not be given (or tested on!) rules that work only some of the time. Oversimplification is the curse of orthography. Fortunately, the body-copy in the articles above did usually address the complexity to some extent. But people remember the headlines, which were as misleading as the old mantra 'A sentence must end with a full-stop'.
On Philomena Cunk, the name - 5 months ago
A correspondent writes - having just watched Ben et al on Philomena Cunk's programme on Shakespeare - to ask why the name sounds so funny. Her name, that is, not Ben's.
This is all to do with the phonaesthetics of English. I've written about it before, such as in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, and about the general topic of sound symbolism in the Language encylopedia. There are two opposing trends:
Short vowels, plosive consonants, and monosyllables tend to be used when you want to give someone a funny or quirky (and meaningless) name - Plip, Togg, Puck ... I remember Blackadder having great fun with the name Bob once. If the sound sequence has echoes of taboo words, so much the better. Cunk inevitably brings to mind ... well, you know.
Long vowels, continuant consonants such as /l/ and /m/, and polysyllables (three or more) tend to be used when you want to give someone a gentle or romantic (and meaningless) name - Lamonian, Manderley, Ramalini ... Real names include Mariana, Valentine - and Philomena.
So it's the juxtaposition of the opposing phonaesthetic effects that provides the effect my correspondent has sensed in the name Philomena Cunk. It's a well-tried literary trick: Roald Dahl's Amanda Thripp, J K Rowling's Arabella Figg, Dr Seuss's Bartholomew Cubbins...
On a multilingual library - 5 months ago
I really want to head this post 'on multilingual libraries', plural, but I don't know of any others apart from the one I visited last Thursday in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. There ought to be one in every city where there are multilingual communities - which means all of them. (So if you know of another, do say.)
I was there because I'd agreed to become patron of the library, which was set up by the Kittiwake Trust and which opened last August. I gave a short talk about the need for libraries in general and for multilingual libraries in particular. I paste it below. It includes some of the points I made in an earlier post (January 2011) about the need to save libraries, and adds a summary of the research into the benefits of bilingualism. (For those especially interested in bilingual myths and realities, there's no better place than François Grosjean's blog, 'Life as a bilingual' .)
I paste below a couple of pictures Hilary took while we were there, which I hope hint at the scale of the project and the diversity it contains. They have books in over 60 languages so far, aimed at all ages. Many can be loaned out. Membership is a fiver a year - and for those who would find even that cost too much, they operate the beautiful 'pay it forward' system, where those who can afford it pay in advance for those who can't, such as people belonging to local refugee support groups. Parents with children are welcome to drop in, and there's plenty of space to sit, read, and play, That was one of the most noticeable things about the library: its welcoming, colourful, playful atmosphere. There's more than just books here. Artefacts from other cultures are sprinkled about, and I imagine these will grow as the project develops.
A particular delight was to see that the library doesn't restrict itself to language diversity but to dialect diversity as well. The Newcastle project has books on Tyneside dialects and other varieties of English, as well as local history - an important piece of PR, as many people unfortunately still can't see the point of bilingualism, but they begin to get an inkling when they realise that their own local dialect raises precisely the same issues of identity, pride, and cultural history.
The library is on the upper floor of the Eldon Garden shopping centre, in the centre of Newcastle. If you travel by car, the entrance is on the seventh floor. That sounds like a long way up, but from the inside it's just an escalator ride up, round the corner from John Lewis. Its phone number is 07776 684940. Its website is here , and it's on Facebook. So, if you're in or around Newcastle, my recommendation is to call in and become a member or a volunteer. And if you have any spare books in other languages taking up space at home, a donation is very welcome.
Why multilingual libraries matter
I spy, with my little eye, two words beginning with ... L.It's a languages library.
L proves to be an interesting letter in English, because it introduces so many words strongly associated with the venture you have launched here: Literature. Languages. Living. Loving. Lending. Learning. Leisure. Legacy ...
How best to capture the spirit, the ethos, the value of libraries? Over the centuries, people have marvelled at them. They have been called a temple, a refuge, a second home, a leisure centre, a discovery channel, an advice bureau. It is a place where you can sit and draw the shelves around you like a warm cloak. When we gain a library we gain a source of wellbeing. The inscription over the door of the library at the ancient city of Thebes read (in classical Greek): 'The medicine chest of the soul'.
The lauding of libraries crosses centuries and cultures. First and foremost they are seen as repositories of knowledge, windows into history. 'A great library', said Canadian scientist George Mercer Dawson (1849-1901), 'contains the diary of the human race.' And especially when it is multilingual.
The metaphor of a library as a treasure trove is a recurrent figure. Let's bring together some famous personalities, and see what they have to say. Here is British poet and journalist John Alfred Langford (1823-1903): 'The only true equalisers in the world are books; the only treasure-house open to all comers is a library.' And Malcolm Forbes (1919-90), the publisher of Forbes magazine, is in no doubt about the appropriateness of the wealth metaphor: 'The richest person in the world - in fact all the riches in the world - couldn't provide you with anything like the endless, incredible loot available at your local library.' And this is writer Germaine Greer (1939- ): 'libraries are reservoirs of strength, grace and wit, reminders of order, calm and continuity, lakes of mental energy'. For Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) it transcends life itself: 'I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library'.
I like the reservoir metaphor - a library as a source of knowledge, waiting for us to simply turn on a tap. Like water, libraries are essential to our wellbeing, whatever our language background. As the American social reformer Henry Ward Beecher (1813-87) said, 'A library is not a luxury but one of the necessities of life.' It is a means of self-improvement, of advancement. Or, as poet and humorist Richard Armour (1906-89) put it in 1954:
Here is where people,One frequently finds, Lower their voiceAnd raise their minds.
And it brings together people from all walks of life.
Listen to the claim made by American cardinal Terence Cooke (1921-83): 'America's greatness is not only recorded in books, but it is also dependent upon each and every citizen being able to utilize public libraries.' Listen to American astronomer Carl Sagan:
'The library connects us with the insight and knowledge, painfully extracted from Nature, of the greatest minds that ever were, with the best teachers, drawn from the entire planet and from all our history, to instruct us without tiring, and to inspire us to make our own contribution to the collective knowledge of the human species. I think the health of our civilization, the depth of our awareness about the underpinnings of our culture and our concern for the future can all be tested by how well we support our libraries.'
Listen to science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov (1920-92):
'I received the fundamentals of my education in school, but that was not enough. My real education, the superstructure, the details, the true architecture, I got out of the public library. For an impoverished child whose family could not afford to buy books, the library was the open door to wonder and achievement, and I can never be sufficiently grateful that I had the wit to charge through that door and make the most of it.'
Have you noticed? I've just quoted from a Roman Catholic cardinal, a scientist, and a science fiction novelist. All sending out the same message. There can be few subjects like libraries to unite such disparate and distinguished minds.
As the British politician Augustine Birrell (1850-1933) once said: 'Libraries are not made; they grow.' That takes time. Behind each library, no matter how small, is a history of growth, watered by the professionalism of the library's caretakers and the enthusiasm of its readers. It is not an enterprise that can be measured by numbers. It is quality that counts, not quantity. No political body should fall into the trap of judging the success of a library solely in terms of the number of its visitors. That lone reader in the corner: who knows what personal potential will be realized in the future because of today's library experience? As American poet Archibald MacLeish (1892-1982) said: 'What is more important in a library than anything else - than everything else - is the fact that it exists.' If it exists, it will be used. And French writer Victor Hugo (1802-85) sums it up: 'A library implies an act of faith'.
And a multilingual library most of all, because of all the benefits that knowing more than one language can bring.
It's normal to be bilingual. When we look around the globe, we find that three-quarters of the world’s population use at least two languages in their everyday lives, and half use at least three. Only a few nations - chiefly those who once had powerful colonies - have stayed monolingual. To be bilingual is the usual human condition.
You will still meet people who hold old-fashioned beliefs about bilingualism. You might hear somebody say that trying to speak more than one language will make your brain tired. Or that the two languages will get mixed up. Or that knowing two languages will slow you down when you're doing your schoolwork.
None of these beliefs are true. The brain has over 100 billion connections (called neurons) that it uses to receive, store, and send information. A language doesn't take up much of that brain space. People who speak languages like English and Spanish use only a few dozen sounds, a few thousand ways of making sentences, and a vocabulary of a few tens of thousand words. That might seem like a lot, but the brain handles it all easily. The evidence lies in the millions of people around the world who speak three, four, or five languages in their everyday lives without any trouble at all. And then there are the super-language-learners, who can handle twenty or thirty languages without their brain exploding. And anyone can be a super-language-learner. You just need a really good reason for learning each new language.
Many research studies have shown that learning more than one language is good for you - and learning lots of languages is especially good for you. Seven big pluses.
Being bilingual helps you to think more powerfullyLanguages make people think in different ways. When you're speaking Spanish you think in one way; when you're speaking English you think in a different way. The mental exercise of moving from one language to the other makes your brain more active. It makes you more creative. It helps you solve problems more easily. And researchers have found out that being bilingual helps your brain to stay healthier when you grow old.
Being bilingual helps you to understand the world betterLanguage exists so that we can talk about the world to each other, and talk about ourselves and our feelings. Each language does this in its own way. The way Spanish talks about the world is different from the way English does. Every language, no matter how few speakers it has, tells us something unique about the way the world works. So, the more languages you know, the more you will come to understand what it is to be a human being on this planet.
Being bilingual helps you to feel proud of yourselfIf you find yourself in a country where you don't speak the language, you're like a baby who can't talk. Learning another language, even to a limited level, removes the frustration of being unable to communicate when you find yourself in a place where it is spoken. You also feel you've really achieved something. You're right to feel proud of yourself, when you've learned another language.
Being bilingual helps you build friendshipsWe live in a world where a war can start because people have misunderstood each other. Learning each other's language can be an important step towards achieving cooperation among countries. Interpreters and translators are essential, but they can't replace the sense of mutual respect which comes from personal linguistic ability. Being able to speak someone else's language is the first step towards making them a friend.
Being bilingual stops you being scared of languagesThe more languages you know, the more you come to understand how language works. You stop being frightened of languages and you find new languages easier to learn. You also become more aware of the characteristic features of your mother-tongue. English-speaking people often say they learned a lot about English grammar by seeing how it differs from other languages.
Being bilingual improves your social skillsLearning another language is to learn another culture and another way of behaving. As a result, bilingual people develop a broader range of social skills, and become more outward-looking. They are also likely to have a greater respect for the differences among cultures, and that can only be a good thing in a world where there is so much conflict.
Being bilingual can get you a better jobFor most people, this is the best benefit of all. These days, many companies are international, and are looking out for people who can speak more than one language - and, even more important, who aren't frightened of learning new languages. These companies know they'll be more successful selling goods if they can do this in the language of the customer.
So, a multilingual library has a lot to celebrate. And perhaps at no better time than on the two big days of the year: Mother-tongue Day on 21 February and the European Day of Languages on 26 September. But the rest of the year too.
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