This column appears in high summer, at a time when many potential readers will be girding up to go off on vacation, and no doubt many will be traveling to some country other than their own. So this seems a good time to focus on languages, even if there is no special reference to materials.

Germany, unlike most countries, has several independent science academies, and these try to keep in touch through the occasional publication of an Akademie-Journal, each of which has contributions from members of more than one Academy. As a member of the Göttingen Academy, I automatically receive this journal, and a recent issue (2/2001) is largely devoted to languages in Europe. The issue kicks off with a brief account of 2001 as the European Year of Languages, which passed without leaving any impact on me! The author of this essay, Brigitte Jostes, starts off with the information that the Danes in the European Parliament laugh (at jokes) after everyone else, because they are the last to hear a translation on their earphones. Much of what went on within the EU that year with reference to languages apparently involved ‘forceful disputes’, and Jostes refers to some bureaucratic bodies such as the Gemeinsame Europäische Referenzrahmen für Sprachen (I know German well, but this verges on the untranslatable).

The most illuminating and deeply felt article in this journal is entitled Deutsch in Linguafrancaland. ‘Lingua franca’ comes from the Middle Ages, when the Venetians amused themselves by slapping this label on the pidgin introduced by Westerners who spent time in Byzantium (now Istanbul). Harald Weinrich, in his essay, refers to this with the wonderfully expressive German word ‘Kauderwelsch’, which was used long ago to denote the ‘Frankish’ pidgin. According to my dictionary, Kauderwelsch means ‘lingo, jargon, hotchpotch, mishmash, double-dutch, gibberish’. Of course, this terminological delight leads on to a critical discussion of English as the modern lingua franca of scientific publication. Weinrich is quite sympathetic to this phenomenon, though he draws the line at German kids who “mit glatter Zunge chatten und downloaden können”. He remarks with mild indignation that these Germanized forms of English words appear in a German reference dictionary. We have arrived in linguafrancaland, he avers. The route that has brought us here is the Internet. Other articles in the journal discuss the fierce efforts of the French authorities to defend their language against creeping anglicization. Again and again laws are announced to force the use of ‘proper French’ and avoid ‘le weekend’ and the like. The French government would like to rule what terms are acceptable, but libertarians will be pleased to note that the French Constitutional Council has decreed that it is not for the State to define what constitutes ‘French’; that is for the French people to decide. Yet another article, by a Swiss professor working in Germany, seeks to explode what he regards as the fallacy that Switzerland is a model of linguistic adaptation. If one is to believe him, there are crises aplenty in that fortunate land, some deriving from the plethora of German dialects in use colliding with French in another part of the country that has no dialects (the French-speakers simply cannot deal with Schwizerdütsch, apparently, and those who speak this often cannot use high German properly). There is also a battery of issues attaching to Romantsch, spoken by about 30?000 Swiss in its five distinct versions (and no one can agree which is the ‘master version’). If any reader wishes to pursue these journal articles further, the editor's e-mail address is:

The subject of English as it has evolved (up to now) on the Internet is intriguing, especially for scientists. As one author in the Journal points out, there are consequential questions in German such as, “Habe ich geemailt oder habe ich egemailt, emaile ich oder maile ich e?” To find out more, read a deeply scholarly, short book by the famous philologist David Crystal, Language and the Internet (Cambridge University Press, 2001). He dissects such phenomena as texting, extreme abbreviations (such as ‘smileys’), formality versus informality, how e-mail messages are to be answered economically, jargon taken to the nth degree — in earnest or in humor (e.g. Major Breakthrough in Searchitis or The Geekicon — the headline of a review of a computer dictionary), and other forms of desperate wit (such as the Society for the Preservation of the Other 25 Letters, which campaigns against the proliferation of e-words). I have some difficulty in keeping sane when I receive such terminations to messages as ‘re and th’, which apparently means ‘regards and thanks’, and I defend myself with the salutation ‘Hi’ followed by the sign-off ‘Unhi’. But for the full, true, and extreme manifestations of the Internet, such as (believe it or not) ‘metacommunicative minimalism’, the reader will have to get hold of David Crystal's book.

Back to materials science in the autumn. Enjoy your summer!

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(02)00815-5