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Last Updated: Saturday, 29 October 2005, 10:52 GMT 11:52 UK
Languages get lost in translation

By Misha Glenny

Misha Glenny explores the effect globalisation is having on language in east European countries.

A remote control in front of a TV
TV has helped bring about change in European languages
The other day I was in the Moldovan capital, Chisinau, seeking a little light relief from my research into organised crime and corruption there (well someone has got to do it!).

At the end of a tough day's interviewing, I have long found solace in surfing the channels of what is even by the standards of contemporary broadcasting the peculiarly bland world of European hotel television.

First I get through the looped bulletins of BBC World, CNN and (for a more parochial touch) Sky News.

Then I flick through the mish-mash of soap operas (usually South American dubbed into anything from Greek to Czech) and game shows.

I once watched an entire Who Wants to Be a Millionaire in Spanish and even though I do not really speak the language, I would have won 32,000 Euros on one contestant's round.

And then half-hour long advertisements selling portable body-building equipment, using impossibly well-toned models who are, nonetheless, bafflingly asexual.

One voice

Some channels I have an aversion to.

I am driven bonkers by the Polish and Russian practice of using one person to dub all voices in films (regardless of gender) while the original English rumbles on incomprehensibly in the background.

To escape this and other tortures, I soon settle on my two favourites, the German tabloid broadcasters RTL and Sat 1.

Actor Larry Hagman played JR in the Dallas
Dallas star JR has kept world viewers amused for years
During the rise of the great American soaps, Dallas and Dynasty, I was living either in Germany or Austria where all TV imports are dubbed and not subtitled.

Which explains in large part why Germans do not speak English as consistently well as their Scandinavian and Dutch neighbours who all watch TV in the original from infancy.

And so now if I ever chance upon a repeat of Dynasty in America or England and Joan Collins raises her hand in a threatening manner, I am always taken aback when she uses English instead of barking, "Verlassen Sie mein Buro! Aber sofort!" as she throws some beleaguered minor character out of her office.

'Happy wife, happy life'

So it is with genuine nostalgia that I sit through the German stations' menu of Jerry Springer-esque talk shows, small claims court cases presided over by a real judge "Judy", not to mention RTL's equivalent of Neighbours, Gute Zeiten, Schlechte Zeiten.

It was during an interview with Michael Schumacher's wife, whose name, I am afraid, escapes me, that I was struck by something profound.

In the middle of a German sentence she said that Michael lived according to the principle, and then she broke into English, of "happy wife, happy life."

It is not a phrase that I have ever come across in English but the Germans seem to think it is, just as the Austrians (not, however, the Germans) will consistently drop in the English phrase "last not least" into their sentences, mysteriously leaving out the "but."


European languages have experienced unprecedented changes in the last 15 years, since globalisation has really kicked in.

Most strikingly, many Czechs are losing the ability to communicate in Slovak. I find this most bizarre
The upshot is, of course, a huge increase in the use of English but also the import of a host of new anglicisms into most European languages, usually associated with technological or management jargon.

Some have now evolved to the point where they no longer mean anything in English.

Everyones favourite is the unbeatably ugly anglo-teutonism "das Handy" for mobile phone in German.

But in Eastern Europe, while the same process of English penetration is under way although more slowly (especially in Russian), the re-ordering of Europe has resulted in significant shifts which usually lead to the impoverishment of people's language capacity.


I can always estimate the age of Macedonians, for example, depending on whether they respond to me in their own language if I address them in Serbo-Croat (which they all understand perfectly).

If they reached their majority before 1992 when Macedonia became independent, it usually means that they can, especially the men, as Serbo-Croat was the language of command in the Yugoslav Army.

Most strikingly, many Czechs are losing the ability to communicate in Slovak. I find this most bizarre.

The two languages are much more closely related than, say, Italian and Spanish and as a Czech-speaker, I can understand Slovak perfectly well, in part because when I studied in communist Czechoslovakia, both languages were spoken in the main evening news and Slovak was heard on the radio and telly almost as frequently as Czech.

Not any more. Slovak culture has more or less disappeared from Prague although Slovaks still seem to understand Czech perfectly well.


But of all the language changes going on, the one I lament the most is the slow but perceptible erosion of the Russian patronymic in public life.

The use of the Christian name followed by "son of" and then the father's Christian name was one of the few cultural devices to bridge the huge divisions of privilege which have plagued Russian society for centuries.

It was a system that simultaneously projected informality and respect.

For years even non-Russians knew Khrushchev by the more cuddly title Nikitia Sergeyevich.

But as Western business practices modernise working life in Moscow and Kiev, the patronymic is being dropped in exchange for the overly familiar blue-skies, out of the box and pushing the envelope world of offices where everyone uses first names even as they are preparing to stab a colleague in the back.

Personally I would prefer to be addressed in the more honest manner of Lermontov, Pushkin or Tolstoy:

"Mikhail Mikhailovich, I challenge you to a duel!"

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 29 October, 2005 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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