War of Words: Using a Whole Lot of Words That Could Have Been Said More Briefly

Take a look at the sign posted at a construction site that I have pictured above. It gives you information upon which you can take action if you wish, and it gives it to you in English and Spanish.

What’s interesting about this? You will notice that the information takes up many more words in Spanish than it does in English. Maybe it just takes a few seconds more to read. But sometimes a few seconds can be crucial. For example, what if it read, in English, “Look Out for the Falling Piano.” You would look up and then jump out of the way. But a Spanish-speaking person would not get to look up so fast. And that might make all the difference in the world.

I have developed a theory about this. I don’t know what else to call it. I can’t prove it, so it is only a theory. But it seems to me that there may be a correlation between the amount of words it takes to say something and the prosperity of the society.

For example, in the Americas, the English-speaking countries are thriving. The same is true in Europe. Those speaking English are much more advanced than those speaking Spanish or Portuguese or Italian, which are other languages that take a lot of time to say something.

I confess to not being able to be much help in proving my theory. I don’t know any other languages very well. (I did study beginner French in high school and then took a test in college to see if I could take advanced French, but flunked, so I had to take beginner French again. It hasn’t stuck.) Little did I know that this inability to master foreign languages would one day prevent me from proving this new and provocative theory. Trop mal.

So what is it with French? Well, my experience with maple syrup cans and other imports from Canada, where they have a law that says things made in Canada have to be written in both English and French on the label, shows that English is slightly shorter. It’s also true the French are slightly behind the Americans.

Think about this. All day, every day, we use language. We spend an overwhelming amount of time doing it. Perhaps half our time is in talking back and forth. It makes perfect sense that, if over and over again it takes us longer to communicate with somebody, then we are at a disadvantage.

Consider a war—for example, the Spanish-American War. Theodore Roosevelt is down at the base of San Juan Hill with his Rough Riders. He yells “Charge!” and by the time the Spaniards up at the top can react, he has overrun them. They are still talking to one another about
what to do.

Or consider that aliens land in a farm field in their flying saucer. They are a higher life form. I’ve seen this over and over again at the movies. A door opens and an alien walks down some stairs. The President is on the scene. He says, in English, “Welcome to Earth. I am the leader. We are a peaceful people. Come and share our world with us.” And the alien looks at the President funny, raises a mandible and looks at a device strapped to it and says “GLYRCK,” and immediately a beam goes out and vaporizes the President. Just that one word does it. So then the American army—didn’t I tell you the whole army was behind the President?—begins giving orders to one another. It’s gonna take a few seconds. But there aren’t a few seconds. “GROAPBRY,” says the alien, and immediately beams go out from not only the flying saucer there in the field to vaporize all of the soldiers, but from flying saucers in space hovering overhead to vaporize all the military aircraft everywhere. Round one goes to the Space Aliens.

Well, maybe I have said too much about this theory already. I’ll probably be accused of being racist. As I said, I don’t speak anything well but English.

But before we go, let’s look at some of the other countries that have done really well. Japan, for example. Again, I don’t know the language, but they have haiku. This is where you write down just a very few characters, maybe 20 or so, and it bespeaks an entire complex thought that can move people to tears of joy. Then there is Russia. They aren’t too shabby going into space with us. Listening to them speak to one another, the meanings come out in short bursts. I betcha they could say what that sign says in half as many words as we can. And I’ll bet in Chinese, it’s even less.

I do think that German is an exception to my rule. They are highly civilized. Yet their language is complicated and tedious, with some words 18 letters long. Gesundheit, for example. But I bet that for “Okay, everybody fire at the aliens,” they have one single but very long and complicated word. I’ll ask my daughter about it. She’s lived in Germany and has a command of the language.

BACK TO Dan Rattiner's Stories