The advantage of owning a language

As an Irish person, I sometimes find myself in awe of how articulate the English are. I’m talking about the really clever ones, usually with cut-glass accents, deftly crafting arguments in flawless phrasing on television – my main point of contact with the English. It’s not only the ideas they are expressing, it’s their absolute mastery of the language. Well it’s almost as if they owned it.

You do hear affectionate remarks about the original use of English by the Irish, shaped as it is by the ghost of the old language underneath, but people in a position of security can afford to give generous praise. Part of me suspects most of this positive spin comes from Irish writers who have taken the compliment and run with it.

Now there could be a post-colonial, 800-years-of-oppression explanation for this respect, after all generations of my ancestors variously feared, loathed, mimicked and looked up to the English – but how would that explain the very similar reaction I observe with some Swiss Germans towards “real” Germans.

When it comes to live debate, Germans, with their natural command of the language, outshine their Swiss-German counterparts. Pit the Swiss finance minister against the German one and it’s like watching the receptionist take on the CEO. Swiss Germans only speak German when they have to, the rest of the time the cling to the comfort of their dialect.

Or maybe this is nothing to do with linguistic superiority and everything to do with superiority of numbers. Yes the Swiss can beat the Germans at football in theory, just as the Irish can beat the English but it takes a very lucky day. In the same way, the teams of leaders and thinkers from more populous countries have the advantage of being drawn from a much bigger pool.

Do the French-speaking Belgians feel the same about their big showy neighbour? Do they look at the French and sigh, giving up all hope of ever competing with their confidence and academies, their glorious language?

My best guess is that small neighbour complex is one phenomenon found all over the world, borrowed language syndrome is another and one should do everything possible to avoid having both together.