I know a young lady who is a perfect polyglot. She speaks Abaza, Bai, Chhattisgarhi, Diola, Ewondo, Frisian, Gâ, Hiri Motu, Inuit, Kiki-Chin and occasionally, when she’s in the mood for it, Quenya. Her repertoire of consonants includes Plosives, Implosives, Ejectives, Nasal Trills, Lateral flaps, Lateral fricatives, Ejective fricatives, Ejective lateral fricatives, Percussives, Lateral approximants, Click consonants (including the odd Lateral click) and a couple of grunts defying all description. She switches from one to the other effortlessly, in mid-sentence, simply for the heck of it. The most astonishing fact is the lady’s age. She is a bright-eyed, perky 10-month-old.
Once upon a time, in another universe, I myself was a 10-month-old and I could do what this lady does now. So could we all. As babies we all produced every sound in every language on the planet, and we loved it.
A glimpse of that joy returned to me much later, during evenings with friends and friends of friends in our dorms at the American university I attended. Many of my fellow students came from all four corners of the world, and so did my friends and my friends’ friends. On those evenings we would swap mock insults (cheerfully and deliberately un-PC), weird recipes and linguistic acrobatics. I remember one evening in particular, when among those present was a lady from South Africa who beside an impressive number of other languages also spoke Xhosa. Xhosa is famous for having no fewer than 15 click sounds, which no sluggish Dutch tongue can imitate and live to tell the tale. This lady had mastered them all, and to tease us click-less folks she produced a tongue twister. I have forgotten what the phrase meant; it had something to do with bracelets. What I do remember is that it contained no fewer than three different types of clicks, one for each syllable, and that it sounded like an avalanche of little pebbles. We were stunned. None of us came even close in our attempts to reproduce it. I tried to avenge my nation’s honour by issuing my own challenge, ‘Achtentachtig Scheveningse schonen schaatsten schreeuwend een scheve schaats’, which I am proud to say was fairly effective but did not quite match the effect of the clicks. We concluded that we all spoke weird, impossible languages, and proceeded to have a wonderful evening together.
I never liked the biblical story about the Tower of Babel, one reason being that I don’t understand the Babylonian curse. Why is it a curse to have many languages? Perhaps divine dictators prefer perfect uniformity in all things, including language. I don’t like divine dictators.
……Oh, and all those languages and sounds I mentioned in the first paragraph? Don’t ask me what they all are. I had to look most of them up in my favourite ‘Dictionary of Languages’ (by Andrew Dalby; Bloomsbury 2004). A little showing-off goes a long way.