My hovercraft is full of eels

Mrs Babel Project is taking an interest and so I recently played her the audio CD that has accompanied my Chinese program. Her first response was, “They’re messing with you!”

She has a point in that Chinese is so foreign to the English ear that you could play audio of cats fighting in an espresso machine and you could pitch it as, “Oh yeah – that’s Chinese.”

When is a language a language? Arguably, when two people can agree on the meaning of a communication. If I say, “What’s that on your foot?” you should look down, and if I say, “What’s that on your head?” you should look up. Monty Python memorably messed with the agreement of language.

My brother-in-law had fun with this. When teaching a child good manners, we often reply to a bald “Gimme dat!” with the question, “What’s the magic word?” We hope to instruct the child to use “Please” and “Thank you”.

My brother-in-law (now known as Uncle Dude to his nephews, but that’s another story) would subvert this educational work, by telling children that the magic word was “Pickle”. This led to the following exchange:

“Want dat cookie!”

“What’s the magic word?”


Cue pleased child (it’s great knowing the answer when you’re little) and very perplexed parent.

At least I have already been able to road-test my Polish. We regularly shop at a Polish deli, and last Sunday I was able to convey to the shop-lady that I was fine. Next Sunday I may be able to decipher if she is fine.

So is my Chinese instruction teaching me a real language or just gibberish? Let me get to some actual conversation and test it out.

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