Linguists do not generally attempt to answer questions of causality. “Why? I can’t answer that,” said Dailey-O’Cain when I asked. “You can look at ongoing changes sometimes if you have the right kind of data but it’s very, very hard.” But there are theories. One particularly fascinating explanation has to do with what’s called the Great Vowel Shift. If you’ve ever wondered why English is such a legendarily horrible language to learn, a lot of the problems can be traced back to the Great Vowel Shift.
There is no firm date on the beginning and end of the Great Vowel Shift, but at most, we can say it happened between the 1100s and the 1700s, with probably the most important and biggest changes happening in the 1400s and 1500s. This coincides with the shift from Middle English to Modern English, and also with the standardization of spelling. The shift itself? Every single “long vowel” — ”ey,” “ee,” “aye,” “oh,” “ooh” — changed. (Nobody knows why. Linguistics is turtles all the way down.)
Before the Great Vowel Shift, “bite” was pronounced more like “beet.” “Meat” was more like “mate.” Everything just kind of slipped one notch over. This happened in stages; that first word, “bite,” started out as “beet,” then became “bait,” then “beyt,” then “bite.” You can hear a nice spoken-aloud rundown of those here.
If you’re wondering what the difference between “bait” and “beyt” is, well, there you have one possible origin of Canadian Raising. “Beyt,” one of the later but not the final stage of the Great Vowel Shift, is extremely similar to the Canadian Raised sound spoken today. There is a theory — not necessarily accepted by all — that Canadian Raised vowels are actually a preserved remnant of the Great Vowel Shift, an in-between vowel sound that was somehow stuck in amber in the Great White North.
Maybe a certain population of Englishmen from that particular time period, around 1600, landed in Canada and due to its isolation failed to observe the further changes happening in England. Maybe.
But I like this explanation. Canadians aren’t weird; they’re respecting the past. One very specific past, that everyone else skipped on by. It’s an awfully nice-sounding diphthong.
Dan Nosowitz, “What’s Going On with the Way Canadians Say ‘About’? It’s not pronounced how you think it is”, Atlas Obscura, 2016-06-01.
August 11, 2016
July 31, 2016
Russians did not realize how much establishing the Finnish language to be the priority language of the Finnish people and govt (and the jaegers/military officers — very important) became a strength to allow a seemingly meek and poor people to sever themselves from the regime. Of course, it was a bloody civil war, but not knowing Finnish was a blow to the Russians. And, they had the same problem in 1939 again. Side story: Russian soldiers easily surrendered so they could get into the Finnish prisons since they were starving and didn’t have proper clothes … some never went back home after WW2. I was told by a relative: “to win a war, you need food (supply lines) and lots of money, that’s really it.”
To this day, Finnish is one of the hardest languages to learn. There are 13 cases and no regular verbs … words change meaning by just adding a few other words to it — some as long as 24 letters! I did meet a Brooklyn guy who is a professor in Helsinki (married to a Finn) who speaks fluent Finnish with a Brooklyn accent!
Finns don’t really care if people don’t want to learn their language (not related to Germanic or Latin languages whatsoever) but they are eager (and required in school) to learn other languages. By the time I was 8, I added English (learned by watching a lot of American TV) to Finnish and Swedish. French and Spanish I learned around 12, and, I have tried to start another language for fun. Side issue: This is also, my own opinion why Finnish kids do so well on the Pisa test (although not as good these last 2 years) every year … the fact that it is normal to know 2-4 languages by age 14.
Although there are some words in Finnish that are similar to Swedish/English, it is still so few for anyone to see a connection — Icelandic, weirdly, has more similarities as far as words. And, despite that it is called a Finno-Ugric language, I don’t see the connection with Hungarian. And, on top of that, half my family (Swedish & ethnic Finnish) are Karelian, so there were words or dialect introduced in addition to mainstream Finnish — enough to confuse a kid even today.
Although, I marvel at the few children of immigrants from Asia or Africa who are fluent in Finnish today, it is still a country of mostly Finns. There are immigrants, but Finland presciently, did not allow the development of ghetto-like housing in the outskirts of cities — immigrants are scattered across metropolitan areas. Needless to say, Finland, because of the climate, and the difficult language, is not a favorite to emigrate to. You can get by with English, but you will not be in the inner circle unless your spouse is Finnish speaking, or you make a concerted effort to learn the language. And, the overwhelming reticence (and need for privacy) of the Finnish people can make for a lonely existence there … summers are nice.
“Lagertha“, commenting on Steve Sailer’s “Freeman Dyson on Human Biological and Cultural Diversity” at The Unz Review, 2015-02-05.
July 4, 2016
Published on 4 Jun 2016
How did the ancient civilization of Sumer first develop the concept of the written word? It all began with simple warehouse tallies in the temples, but as the scribes sought more simple ways to record information, those tallies gradually evolved from pictograms into cuneiform text which could be used to convey complex, abstract, or even lyrical ideas.
Sumer was the land of the first real cities, and those cities required complex administration. The temples which kept people together were not only religious places, but also warehouses which stored the community’s collective wealth until it was needed to get through lean years. As the donations came in, scribes would count the items and draw pictures of them on clay tablets. The images quickly became abstract as the scribes needed to rush, and they also morphed to represent not just an image but the word itself – more specifically, the sound of the word, which meant that it could also be written to represent other words that sounded similar (homophones). Sumerian language often put words together to express new ideas, and the same concept applied to their writing. As people came to use this system more, the scribes began to write from left to right instead of top to bottom since they were less likely to mess up their clay tablets that way. Those who read the tablets didn’t appreciate this change, so the scribes rotated the words 90 degrees allowing tablets to be rotated if the reader preferred – but this made the images even more abstract, until eventually the pictograms vanished entirely to be replaced by wedge-shaped stylus marks: cuneiform. Many of Sumer’s neighbors adopted this invention and helped it spread throughout the region, though completely different writing systems developed independently in cultures situated in places like China and South America!
June 19, 2016
Published on 18 Jun 2016
Sir Indy Neidell awaits you for another edition of OUT OF THE TRENCHES where he answers your questions about the First World War.
May 3, 2016
Larry Correia just got back from a trip to Europe, where he discovered the joys of Germany’s Autobahn system:
Of all the languages, German was by far the easiest to pick up words and phrases for me. Despite being related to Portuguese and Spanish, French sounds totally eluded me. And Czech is HARD (they have like 46 ways to make conjunctions). But German shares a lot of word roots with English, and the actual structure is pretty straight forward. Plus it is fun to just walk around and make up vaguely German sounding names for things, like a pigeon is Das Poopinbirden.
The next day we drove across all of Germany to the Czech Republic, and I got to experience the autobahn, which my whole life has been this sort of mythical place that has no speed limits, and is filled with drivers that understand slow traffic stays right, and where they never camp in the left lane, and in fact, if you’re blocking the left lane, they’ll come right up on your bumper at 100 miles an hour, honking, and flashing their lights. It was a place devoid of mercy, unforgiving of weakness. So we set out.
Apparently there are two kinds of tourist drivers on the autobahn. Those who are weak, fearful, whose crying pillows smell of lilacs and shame, who stay in the truck lane, or who wander out into the left occasionally, timidly, to be honked at and chased aside by awesome Teutonic Super Drivers…
And the other kind is the American who manages to average 180km an hour across all of Germany in a Volvo diesel station wagon.
It was AMAZING. I felt like a race car driver across an entire country. You know why German cars don’t have cup holders? Because if you stop to drink while driving, YOU WILL DIE. And you should. You need to be on. I’d get a gap, jump out to the left, floor it (because fuel economy is for hippies I’m on the mother f’ing autobahn!), and nobody pulls out in front of me in a minivan to enforce their personal speed limit, people ahead of me going slower (like 100mph) immediately get out of the way, and when some bad ass comes up behind me in a super car, I get out of his way, and then they blast past me like I’m standing still.
It was beautiful.
You wouldn’t think a diesel Volvo would be comfy at 112 miles an hour, but it really is. Yes. I friggin’ love the autobahn. If I lived here I would buy a giant BMW or Audi and drive very fast, all the time. Why can’t we have something like this here? I would like to institute autobahn style rules on I-15 in Utah. Sure, a few thousand people would probably die in the first weekend, but after that it would be awesome.
March 5, 2016
Ben Franklin said “Honesty is the best policy.” The full subtlety of that proverb is lost in modern English, because the word “policy” has shifted in meaning. In Franklin’s time the word had connotations of willed manipulation and deception that it has since lost. Translated into modern English it reads like “Honesty is the most effective way to manipulate people.”
And so, the wu-wei paradox of effective advocacy. To manipulate, speak truth. But it’s not enough to have the truth to speak; you need to be able to say it without strain, in a way that flows naturally from who you are. What is powerful is not just to speak truth but be made of truth clear inward to your bones.
I’m speaking lived experience here, not theory. I have spent decades becoming the kind of person to whom speaking the clearest truth I can formulate, even when it’s uncomfortable for me or socially frowned upon by others, comes as naturally as breathing. Audiences sense this naturalness and respond to it. This is why, when I speak difficult truths in public, I am much better than most people at inducing my listeners to actually grapple with them.
Eric S. Raymond, “Truth-telling and wu-wei“, Armed and Dangerous, 2014-12-16.
December 14, 2015
Some are apparently so concerned at gendered pronouns that they hope to persuade everyone else to go linguistically generic:
Let’s call everyone “they”: Gender-neutral language should be the norm, not the exception.
We are forced to… give in and refer to our co-workers, students and friends as “he” or “she.” The result is that our language caps our ability to be progressive in this realm, forces us to immediately characterise people as male or female.
Which is only accurate and expected practically all of the time. And so,
We ought to revert to the gender neutral “they” whenever gender is not explicitly relevant.
You see, Ms Kovvali believes that gendered pronouns and honorifics are an “outdated linguistic tic.” And not a useful, rather concise source of information, a signal of respect, and a way of clarifying who it is we’re talking about.
The effect of elevating gender’s importance is felt by the cis-gendered as well. None of us fit neatly or entirely into a traditional gender binary, with all the expectations of masculinity and femininity that these buckets entail.
And yet despite this claim, and the somewhat random mention of buckets, almost all of us seem quite happy to be referred to as either male or female, as if it were in fact “relevant,” and the demand for gender-neutral pronouns remains, to say the least, a niche concern. I’d even venture to suggest that some of us might feel slighted by the wilful omission of – diminishing of – our respective maleness or femaleness.
That a tiny minority object to gendered pronouns, or pretend to object in the hope of seeming morally fashionable, is apparently grounds for the rest of us to be imposed upon, and possibly insulted, with a widespread and routine denial of our gender. It isn’t clear to me why un-gendering everyone is hugely preferable to the highly unlikely mis-gendering of one person, potentially, in theory. And much as I hate to be a bother, my “preferred pronouns” are masculine. Like almost all human beings, I am not alienated from my sex in psychologically hazardous ways. I am not of indeterminate gender. I am not a they.
November 15, 2015
Lester Haines on how and when the distinctive “Strine” accent originated:
Australians’ distinctive accent – known affectionately as “Strine” – was formed in the country’s early history by drunken settlers’ “alcoholic slur”.
This shock claim, we hasten to add, comes from Down Under publication The Age, which explains:
The Australian alphabet cocktail was spiked by alcohol. Our forefathers regularly got drunk together and through their frequent interactions unknowingly added an alcoholic slur to our national speech patterns.
For the past two centuries, from generation to generation, drunken Aussie-speak continues to be taught by sober parents to their children.
The paper reckons that not only do Aussies speak at “just two thirds capacity – with one third of our articulator muscles always sedentary as if lying on the couch”, but they also ditch entire letters and play slow and loose with vowels.
Missing consonants can include missing “t”s (Impordant), “l”s (Austraya) and “s”s (yesh), while many of our vowels are lazily transformed into other vowels, especially “a”s to “e”s (stending) and “i”s (New South Wyles) and “i”s to “oi”s (noight).
The upshot of this total disregard for clear English is that our Antipodean cousins are poor communicators and lack rhetorical skills, something which could cost the Australian economy “billions of dollars”, as The Age audaciously quantifies it.
October 12, 2015
I don’t know about you, but the first embedded video here at Open Culture sounds much more “Irish” than modern “English” to me:
As we highlighted a few days ago, recent findings by South African scientists suggest that William Shakespeare may have smoked pot, possibly composing some of his celebrated plays while under the influence. Their research is sure to spark controversy among Shakespeare scholars and historians alike, but it’s certainly a more interesting controversy than the tired debate about whether Shakespeare wrote his plays at all. Perhaps even more interesting than Shakespeare’s drug of choice for lovers of his language are debates about what Shakespeare’s plays might have sounded like to his original audiences. In other words, high or not, what might Shakespeare, his actors, and his audience have sounded like when they spoke the language we call English.
Of course they called the language English as well, but we might not recognize some words as such when hearing Shakespeare’s accent aloud. On the other hand, it might be surprising just how much the Bard’s original pronunciation sounds like so many other kinds of English we know today. In a post two years ago, we quoted Shakespearean actor, director, and writer Ben Crystal on Shakespeare’s original pronunciation, which, he says, “has flecks of nearly every regional U.K. English accent, and indeed American and in fact Australian, too.” Hearing Shakespeare’s English spoken aloud, Crystal remarks, is hearing a sound that “reminds people of the accent of their home.” You can test this theory, and hear for yourself the sound of Shakespeare’s English with the video and audio highlighted here, showcasing Crystal’s performance of the plays in original pronunciation (OP).
September 19, 2015
Katharine Timpf explains why we all face potentially insurmountable problems with our pronouns:
Scripps College, a private all-women’s college in Southern California, is giving students ten pronoun options to choose from in their student portal accounts — including “hu, hum, hus, himself,” “Just My Name Please,” and “None”
It’s not clear what the hell students who choose “None” are supposed to be called, especially since “Name Only” is another option. Are they (oops! I said “they!”) asking to not be spoken to at all? Because that sounds like a microaggression.
The other eight options are “E/Ey, Em, Eir/Eirs, Eirself/Emse,” “Per, Per, Per/Pers, Perself,” “Zi, Hir/Hirs Hirself,” “Ze, Zir, Zir/Zirs, Zirself,” “They, Them, Their/Theirs, Themse” (used as a singular pronoun) and — yes — the archaic “He, Him, His, Himself” or “Her, She, Hers, Herself.”
There is, however, an obvious problem with this system: What about the gender-fluid students who may change genders and pronouns throughout the year, or even perhaps throughout the day? I can’t imagine how traumatic (dangerous?) being pressured to choose just one might be.
September 13, 2015
We slept that night at Barr, a pleasant little town on the way to St. Ottilienberg, an interesting old convent among the mountains, where you are waited upon by real nuns, and your bill made out by a priest. At Barr, just before supper a tourist entered. He looked English, but spoke a language the like of which I have never heard before. Yet it was an elegant and fine-sounding language. The landlord stared at him blankly; the landlady shook her head. He sighed, and tried another, which somehow recalled to me forgotten memories, though, at the time, I could not fix it. But again nobody understood him.
“This is damnable,” he said aloud to himself.
“Ah, you are English!” exclaimed the landlord, brightening up.
“And Monsieur looks tired,” added the bright little landlady. “Monsieur will have supper.”
They both spoke English excellently, nearly as well as they spoke French and German; and they bustled about and made him comfortable. At supper he sat next to me, and I talked to him.
“Tell me,” I said — I was curious on the subject — “what language was it you spoke when you first came in?”
“German,” he explained.
“Oh,” I replied, “I beg your pardon.”
“You did not understand it?” he continued.
“It must have been my fault,” I answered; “my knowledge is extremely limited. One picks up a little here and there as one goes about, but of course that is a different thing.”
“But they did not understand it,” he replied, “the landlord and his wife; and it is their own language.”
“I do not think so,” I said. “The children hereabout speak German, it is true, and our landlord and landlady know German to a certain point. But throughout Alsace and Lorraine the old people still talk French.”
“And I spoke to them in French also,” he added, “and they understood that no better.”
“It is certainly very curious,” I agreed.
“It is more than curious,” he replied; “in my case it is incomprehensible. I possess a diploma for modern languages. I won my scholarship purely on the strength of my French and German. The correctness of my construction, the purity of my pronunciation, was considered at my college to be quite remarkable. Yet, when I come abroad hardly anybody understands a word I say. Can you explain it?”
“I think I can,” I replied. “Your pronunciation is too faultless. You remember what the Scotsman said when for the first time in his life he tasted real whisky: ‘It may be puir, but I canna drink it’; so it is with your German. It strikes one less as a language than as an exhibition. If I might offer advice, I should say: Mispronounce as much as possible, and throw in as many mistakes as you can think of.”
It is the same everywhere. Each country keeps a special pronunciation exclusively for the use of foreigners — a pronunciation they never dream of using themselves, that they cannot understand when it is used. I once heard an English lady explaining to a Frenchman how to pronounce the word Have.
“You will pronounce it,” said the lady reproachfully, “as if it were spelt H-a-v. It isn’t. There is an ‘e’ at the end.”
“But I thought,” said the pupil, “that you did not sound the ‘e’ at the end of h-a-v-e.”
“No more you do,” explained his teacher. “It is what we call a mute ‘e’; but it exercises a modifying influence on the preceding vowel.”
Before that, he used to say “have” quite intelligently. Afterwards, when he came to the word he would stop dead, collect his thoughts, and give expression to a sound that only the context could explain.
Putting aside the sufferings of the early martyrs, few men, I suppose, have gone through more than I myself went through in trying to I attain the correct pronunciation of the German word for church — “Kirche”. Long before I had done with it I had determined never to go to church in Germany, rather than be bothered with it.
“No, no,” my teacher would explain — he was a painstaking gentleman; “you say it as if it were spelt K-i-r-c-h-k-e. There is no k. It is—.” And he would illustrate to me again, for the twentieth time that morning, how it should be pronounced; the sad thing being that I could never for the life of me detect any difference between the way he said it and the way I said it. So he would try a new method.
“You say it from your throat,” he would explain. He was quite right; I did. “I want you to say it from down here,” and with a fat forefinger he would indicate the region from where I was to start. After painful efforts, resulting in sounds suggestive of anything rather than a place of worship, I would excuse myself.
“I really fear it is impossible,” I would say. “You see, for years I have always talked with my mouth, as it were; I never knew a man could talk with his stomach. I doubt if it is not too late now for me to learn.”
By spending hours in dark corners, and practising in silent streets, to the terror of chance passers-by, I came at last to pronounce this word correctly. My teacher was delighted with me, and until I came to Germany I was pleased with myself. In Germany I found that nobody understood what I meant by it. I never got near a church with it. I had to drop the correct pronunciation, and painstakingly go back to my first wrong pronunciation. Then they would brighten up, and tell me it was round the corner, or down the next street, as the case might be.
I also think pronunciation of a foreign tongue could be better taught than by demanding from the pupil those internal acrobatic feats that are generally impossible and always useless. This is the sort of instruction one receives:
“Press your tonsils against the underside of your larynx. Then with the convex part of the septum curved upwards so as almost—but not quite — to touch the uvula, try with the tip of your tongue to reach your thyroid. Take a deep breath, and compress your glottis. Now, without opening your lips, say ‘Garoo.’”
And when you have done it they are not satisfied.
Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men on the Bummel, 1914.
September 4, 2015
Perhaps it’s not just a social construct after all:
However much we’d like to think of gender as a social construct, science suggests that real differences do exist between female and male brains. The latest evidence: a first-of-its-kind European study that finds that the female brain can be drastically reshaped by treating it with testosterone over time.
Research has shown that women have the advantage when it comes to memory and language, while men tend to have stronger spatial skills (though this too has been disputed). But due to ethical restrictions, no study had been able to track the direct effect that testosterone exposure has on the brain — until now. Using neuroimaging, Dutch and Austrian researchers found that an increase in this potent hormone led to shrinkage in key areas of the female (transitioning to male) brain associated with language. They presented their findings at last week’s annual meeting of the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology in Amsterdam.
August 23, 2015
But all this is apart from the moral I wished to draw from the incident. The true inwardness of the situation lay in the indignation of this Britisher at finding a German railway porter unable to comprehend English. The moment we spoke to him he expressed this indignation in no measured terms.
“Thank you very much indeed,” he said; “it’s simple enough. I want to go to Donaueschingen myself by train; from Donaueschingen I am going to walk to Geisengen; from Geisengen I am going to take the train to Engen, and from Engen I am going to bicycle to Constance. But I don’t want to take my bag with me; I want to find it at Constance when I get there. I have been trying to explain the thing to this fool for the last ten minutes; but I can’t get it into him.”
“It is very disgraceful,” I agreed. “Some of these German workmen know hardly any other language than their own.”
“I have gone over it with him,” continued the man, “on the time table, and explained it by pantomime. Even then I could not knock it into him.”
“I can hardly believe you,” I again remarked; “you would think the thing explained itself.”
Harris was angry with the man; he wished to reprove him for his folly in journeying through the outlying portions of a foreign clime, and seeking in such to accomplish complicated railway tricks without knowing a word of the language of the country. But I checked the impulsiveness of Harris, and pointed out to him the great and good work at which the man was unconsciously assisting.
Shakespeare and Milton may have done their little best to spread acquaintance with the English tongue among the less favoured inhabitants of Europe. Newton and Darwin may have rendered their language a necessity among educated and thoughtful foreigners. Dickens and Ouida (for your folk who imagine that the literary world is bounded by the prejudices of New Grub Street, would be surprised and grieved at the position occupied abroad by this at-home-sneered-at lady) may have helped still further to popularise it. But the man who has spread the knowledge of English from Cape St. Vincent to the Ural Mountains is the Englishman who, unable or unwilling to learn a single word of any language but his own, travels purse in hand into every corner of the Continent. One may be shocked at his ignorance, annoyed at his stupidity, angry at his presumption. But the practical fact remains; he it is that is anglicising Europe. For him the Swiss peasant tramps through the snow on winter evenings to attend the English class open in every village. For him the coachman and the guard, the chambermaid and the laundress, pore over their English grammars and colloquial phrase books. For him the foreign shopkeeper and merchant send their sons and daughters in their thousands to study in every English town. For him it is that every foreign hotel- and restaurant-keeper adds to his advertisement: “Only those with fair knowledge of English need apply.”
Did the English-speaking races make it their rule to speak anything else than English, the marvellous progress of the English tongue throughout the world would stop. The English-speaking man stands amid the strangers and jingles his gold.
“Here,” cries, “is payment for all such as can speak English.”
He it is who is the great educator. Theoretically we may scold him; practically we should take our hats off to him. He is the missionary of the English tongue.
Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men on the Bummel, 1914.
July 20, 2015
In sp!ked, Patrick West discusses the wellspring of British humour:
The English have a reputation for being a funny people. This, I think, derives from the sloppiness of our language, the messiness of which leads to misunderstandings. Indeed, the word ‘funny’ itself has two meanings.
Consider the old joke. ‘My dog has no nose’, says one. ‘How does he smell?’, asks another. ‘Terrible!’ This works because the English verb ‘to smell’ means both to sniff and to emit an odour. This joke wouldn’t work in Italian, where there’s no room for confusion. ‘Il cane sente l’odore del cibo’ means ‘the dog smells the food’; ‘Il cane puzza terribile’ means ‘the dog smells terrible’.
Romance languages also use reflexive verbs much more than we do, which also removes ambiguity. In Catalan, ‘ofegar’ means to suffocate someone or something else, and ‘ofegar-se’ means for oneself to suffocate. In English, ‘to suffocate’ can mean to asphyxiate or to strangle, two very different things.
Italian has ‘sentire’ meaning ‘to feel (something)’ and ‘sentirsi’ meaning ‘to feel’ – the latter pertaining to your internal self. To feel cold is ‘sentire freddo’, while to feel like doing something is ‘sentirsi di fare’. English doesn’t have that distinction.
English is ripe for misunderstanding. Children are amused by the construction ‘I feel like an apple’, as they are yet to comprehend that ‘like’ is the equivalent of the preposition ‘similar to’, as well as a verb. That ‘your’ and ‘you’re’ sound the same gives us verbal jokes like the one I heard on BBC Radio 4 this week:
‘Two nuns are driving along when the devil suddenly appears on their car bonnet, surrounded by fire and brimstone. One nun says to the other: “Quick, show him your cross.” The other leans out the window and shouts, “Get off my fucking bonnet!”.’
Then there’s the dual role of the apostrophe. In speech, ‘Gerrards Cross’ can either be a village in Buckinghamshire, a cross that belongs to Gerrard, or the state of mind of a Liverpool footballer who hasn’t been picked for the England team.
July 13, 2015
The senior ambassadors developed an extraordinarily elevated sense of their own importance, especially if we measure it against the professional ethos of today’s ambassadors. Paul Cambon is a characteristic example: hr remarked in a letter of 1901 that the whole of French diplomatic history amounted to little more than a long list of attempts by agents abroad to achieve something in the face of resistance from Paris. When he disagreed with his official instructions from the capital, he not infrequently burned them. During a tense conversation with Justin de Selves, minister of foreign affairs from June 1911 until January 1912, Cambon somewhat tactlessly informed de Selves that he considered himself the minister’s equal. This claim looks less bizarre if we bear in mind that between 1898, when he became ambassador to London, and the summer of 1914, Cambon saw nine ministers enter and leave office — two of them did so twice. Cambon did not regard himself as a subordinate employee of the government, but as a servant of France whose expertise entitled him to a major role in the policy-making process.
Underpinning Cambon’s exalted sense of self was the belief — shared by many of the senior ambassadors — that one did not merely represent France, one personified it. Though he was ambassador in London from 1898 until 1920, Cambon spoke not a word of English. During his meetings with Edward Grey (who spoke no French), he insisted that every utterance be translated into French, including easily recognized words such as “yes”. He firmly believed — like many members of the French elite — that French was the only language capable of articulating rational thought and he objected to the foundation of French schools in Britain on the eccentric grounds that French people raised in Britain tended to end up mentally retarded.
Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went To War In 1914, 2012.