Trow paper towls

If this were in China one might call it “Chinglish.” But this sign is in a bathroom in Midtown Manhattan, in an upscale Indian deli. Those of us who claim English heritage can’t help but take a little pride in the fact that our oppressive, imperialist forebears spread our language and culture so far and wide that we don’t have to learn another language. English is the lingua franca of the world. Even though there are more than 1,500 languages spoken in India, I can travel the whole of the subcontinent without knowing a word of any of them. (Thank you T. B. Macaulay!) Sure, that means I can be a bit condescending and simultaneously ignorant, but what do you want? An ethno-linguistic anthropologist?

It must really annoy the French that English is so popular. Does one need more proof that the Anglo-American empire ultimately won in the contest for cultural domination against the Franco-loser empire? But this is the cruelest cut of all: the very term lingua franca literally means “the Frankish [i.e. proto-French] language.” English is what the French language aspired to be but was not. Lingua franca was a trade language in Mediterranean ports composed of a mish-mash of French, Italian, Arabic, and Greek. The term “lingua franca” these days merely means any functional language that is not anyone’s mother tongue and has to be learned. The bragging rights that the French once aspired to have devolved upon the natural Anglophones.

To boot and boot! (See definition 2 in that link.) English is half French anyway! Before 1066 the Angles and their pals the Saxons, both of whom spoke a Germanic language — Anglish I guess — were defeated at the Battle of Hastings by the Norseman turned Frenchman, William the Conqueror. For three hundred years after Hastings French was the language of government and law. For seven hundred years after Hastings the language spoken in the courts by lawyers and judges was a peculiarly twisted form of legalese French. Most of our words for finished foodstuffs are French: mutton, beef, poultry (mouton, boeuf, poulet). The animals in the field are called by their Anglo-Saxon names: sheep, cow, chicken. Why? Because the Lords of the Manor spoke French, and the oppressed serfs who were their servants had to talk to them in French, even as they continued to work in English.

It is likely that the same sort of thing is happening today. English as the language of the conquerors is mutating in a thousand different directions, spinning like a whirligig, producing dialects and hybrids that will eventually become their own, mutually unintelligible languages. A few years ago I visited China. In Shanghai my friends and I went to one of the most famous soup dumpling restaurants in the old city. They were very proud of their crab ovary dumplings, and expressed it thusly: “Crad [sic] Ovary Dumpling ~ SUPER RANK!” They meant that these dumplings are superlative, in the first rank. The other, unintended meaning was just as correct and a lot funnier.

What can we make from the sign above? Trow means to think or believe. (Granted, it is archaic. No one has said “I trow!” in two hundred years.) At the bottom the sign commands the management to pay attention. We can conclude that there are some paper towels sitting on the toilet dispensing advice, and the management is under no circumstances to believe what the towels say. “Hi!” says the towel. “I’m a paper towel! Don’t throw me away or flush me into the sewer!” The manager, being forewarned by the sign, stops up his ears to this pathetic cry, and does just that — throws the little beast into a plastic bag and off to the landfill with him!

Come to New York! Learn the English of the 21st century and beyond written on the bathroom wall!

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