The Mother Tongue


RENÉ MACCOLL is the globe-trotting chief foreign correspondent of the London DAILY EXPRESS.

I have always retained a soft spot in my cinema-going heart for those films in which the hostile Teutons challenge every law of probability by persistently addressing one another in broken English.

There was a rich harvest of such arresting dialogue in films of World War II. The scene might be set in the interior of a marauding Nazi U-boat. A petty officer clicks his heels.

“Herr Kapitan,” he ventures.

“Ja?” barks the captain.

So far, so good. But now the embattled Germans lapse into their own quaint brand of English.

“Ein allied vorship has chust opened fire upon us, sir.”

“Donner und blitzen! Are ve on der surface at der moment?” “Jawohl, Herr Kapitan.” “Schweinhund ! Zen ve must submerge. Time is of der essence.”

“Bitte zehr. I ron to sound der submerging alarm, nein?”


The war ended, but the tradition lingered. Not long ago I saw a film about contemporary, wall-cleft Berlin. In that one the spies talked to each other in the same fashion.

“Effter all, Colonel, I am aboff all a voman.”

“Und a very schoene voman too, mein dear.”

“Bot, don’t you see. Colonel, vot you are esking me to do?”

“Ja, und only you could do it.” “Bot, bot it vill mean — somebotty vill get hurt.”

“Zo-o-o. Der handsome young Americanishe oberlieutenant mit der dark curly hair, nein? I peckin to see it all now.”

Well, all right. That happens to be one of the accepted conventions of screenland. Just as the characters ride off into the sunset at the end of a Western, so the Germans speak bad English to one another at all times, not knowing any better.

But the other day I was flying to DÜsseldorf from London, and found myself aboard a Lufthansa plane. All was going splendidly. The journey was smooth, the service impeccable. The tall hostess was indistinguishable from her sisters of other internationally famous airlines, save for minor details of uniform and the small, but beguiling, errors in her English.

Next to me sat a glossy, wellnourished fellow who looked like the man most likely to be chosen as appropriate to embody Germany’s post-war economic miracle. His suiting, his shoes, his shirt, his ample ring, his wristwatch, his briefcase, his scent, and his pen were more elegant than those in the ads in any chic, glossy magazine that you care to name.

A reassuring clanking sound heralded the approach of the trolley bearing the aperitifs. It paused alongside my chair. The air hostess bent over my neighbor and said, “Excuse me, sir, bot vat vould you care to eff?”

“Ach,” rejoined my well-accoutered pal, glancing up from his monogrammed order book. “Giff me, please, a chin.”

“Certainly, sir. Mit a leetle slice of lemon und som ice?”

“Nein. Chust der tonic — Schweppes. natÜrlich. ”

“You vould care lor a dobble, maybe?”

“Vell — vy not?”

“Und mit your meal, sir, vould you prefer red or vite vine?”

“Vell, let’s see. It’s bifstek, isn’t it? So der red, if you plizz.”

This exchange more or less wrecked any concentration which I had thitherto been bestowing on the novel I was reading. A subsequent exchange — “Vot is our E.T.A., plizz?” “Eleven thirty-three, local time, on der nose, sir”—added to my uneasiness.

Why should the air hostess and the businessman be thus maintaining their conversation in an alien tongue? Was it a form of exquisite courtesy, intended to put me, the obvious Englishman, at ease? If so, the gesture had had the opposite effect. Were they merely showing off? Scarcely. Was it conceivable that they were mocking me? I couldn’t see any point to that.

Whatever the motive, these two kept it up right to the end of the trip. On arrival, as we all unstrapped ourselves, rose, and shuffled toward the exit, the stewardess said to this latter-day Krupp, “Ai hope you hef enjoyed your journey, sir, und dat ve shell see you agen.” “A lofflee trip,” he replied. “Sanks a lot und pest of lock.”

Apart from the Germans, I believe that only the Mexicans were formerly depicted on film as inveterate fragmenters of the English language. (“Caramba! Tell ze greengo zat eef he look at Carmeneita once again, I shall keel heem, pronto!”) But that was in the era before the Alliance for Progress. These days the Mexicans speak English just as graciously as anyone else.

What I do not recall having seen is a historical figure made to speak in broken English. Logically, there is no reason for this.

SCENE: French headquarters at the Battle of Waterloo.

MARSHAL NEY: “Sire, les Anglais are holding to leur positions comme des leeches. Is it zat we attack une fois encore?”

napoleon: “Parbleu! Zey are an obstinate lot. What is passing at Quatre Bras?”

NEY: “Zere, too, ze impasse.” NAPOLEON: “Oh, la, la.”

(Enter Courier) NAPOLEON: “Et bien?” COURIER: “Ave you some orders for ze Vieille Garde, Sire?”

NAPOLEON: “Certainement. Tell zem ze Empereur says ze Vieille Garde dies mais does not surrender. Ave you got zat?”

COURIER: “Très bon, Sire.” (Exits) (Enter Second Courier) NAPOLEON: “Oui?” SECOND COURIER: “Mauvaises nouvelles, Sire. Ze cavalry has gone pouf — down into ze unobserved sunken route. Catastrophe!”

NAPOLEON: “Ah, quel malheur! Ney, mon ami, I fear zat just about tears it.”

NEY: “Oui, Sire. C’est tout à fait déchiré maintenant.”

NAPOLEON : “Zen it’s time to scram, mon vieux,”