12 OCTOBER 1956, Page 20


SIR,—Oliver Edwards writes of Thomas Mann, in a recent review : 'Perhaps it was that touch of insensitivity that allowed him, the great artist, to murder our sweet English tongue on the wireless in his old age.' Dr. Edwards (this is surely Oliver Edwards II) must know that practically all Germans murder all foreign tongues at all ages. Like Hercules, they start the bloody work in their cradle, and do not desist. To murder a language is, I take it, not to speak it badly, and is consonant with a fair degree of competence. It is to be grossly insen- sitive to the limitations of one's own capacity, or to the genius of the foreign language, or to both. Most Englishmen (I mean Englishmen here) are protected from this crime by natural diffidence, some Englishmen (I include here the Scotch, Welsh and Irish) by their imagination, and all Englishmen by their varying degrees of skill in handling a language which is one of the most subtle and expressive in Europe. In all these matters, Germans are at a sad dis- advantage. They fail to perceive the situations where, as Miss Mitford would say, the U- response is silence—or to consult a native speaker, or relapse into one's own language. Anyone with experience will have observed countless examples of the crime; I mention two from my own experience, one public, one private. The first, public, was the folksy idiom of the captions flashed on the screen during the intervals of Mutter Courage, by the Berliner Ensemble. The second, private, a visit by an astronomer from Bonn; for one whole week we read the sense of his utterances like a palimp- sest, by mentally transposing them into Ger- man. There is no doubt, Germans are among the worst linguists in Europe, as Englishmen (I include here . . .), when they set their mind to it, are among the best.—Yours faithfully,