11 APRIL 1992, Page 41


Power to the pinple

Martyn Harris

ik wod, pal malika — and there you have my first phrase in proto-Nostradic, the ur-language of the human race accord- ing to Horizon (BBC 2, 8.10 p.m., Monday). A linguist called Greenberg had discovered that all the 200-odd languages of central Africa, from Nigeria to Zimbabwe, were really the same language, apart from the fact that nobody speaking one could under- stand anyone speaking another. What they did have was a common vocabulary of essential words, so that, for example, the word `milig' in Sudan, which means 'breast', could easily be recognised as the cognate of `kimil' in Angola, which means Bird's Angel Delight.

All the linguists wore explosive facial hair and had lost their pens and telephones amongst slithering piles of loose-leaf fold- ers and files. One, called Pogopolski, I believe, argued that all 2,000 languages of the Americas were really the same as well, while a third, called Kloonskoff (I'm mak- ing them up now), said there was really only one language on earth if you went back 40,000 years. We saw a hominid's view of the African landscape and heard his grunted vocabulary for its simple features. It had words like 'wod' for water and `nipot' for nephew: words which were such important keystones to social stability that they hardly altered from one aeon to the other, or from one mass migration to the next.

James Baldwin says somewhere that 'the root function of language is to control real-

Ity by describing it', but for the modern politician its purpose has become to manip- ulate reality by evading it. On Channel Four News (7 p.m., Monday) Jon Snow 'put it' to Neil Kinnock that as he didn't have more than a two-point lead he wasn't going to get an overall majority, was he? `Ah,' said the Welsh Wizard, 'but the message from the constituencies....' And you could fill in the rest yourself. Three hours later, on Panorama (10 p.m., BBC 1), David Dimbleby asked John Major why after three weeks campaigning he was still behind in the polls. `Ah,' he replied, 'but the message from the constituencies.... ' The Message from the constituencies, of course, is whatever pack of lies you choose to tell, but it does carry the irresistible sug- gestion that the politician, with his intimate acquaintance with Mrs Bloggs's doorstep, is more closely in touch with 'real people' than the smooth-suited Snows and Pax- mans and Dimblebys. Never mind that electors all lie to canvassers and canvassers all lie to their party agents: their idle gossip carries a greater moral authority than the scientific sampling of 10,000 people by a market research company, whose reputa- tion for accuracy and objectivity is the pre- requisite of its very survival.

In the Observer journalist John Sweeney's brilliant video diary of the election cam- paign (The Late Show, BBC 2, 11.40 p.m., Monday) we saw more evidence that the speech of politicians is edging back towards a common ur-speak. Paddy Ashdown, Neil Kinnock and John Major now all say `vra- munpil' when they mean 'very many peo- ple'. They say `pinple' when they mean 'opinion poll', and they say 'fascist' when they mean 'one with whose opinion, mildly and legitimately expressed, I happen to dis- agree'.

Thus when Kenneth Baker heard the news of a 10.9 per cent neo-Nazi vote in Baden-Wurttemburg, he reached eagerly for the eight-foot tar brush: 'Proportional representation has helped the fascists to march again in Europe. That is what Ash- down and Kinnock are prepared to do in 'Can you make that Tuesday? Friday's looking a bit awkward.' their quest for power. A pact with the devil'. To which I can only say again, `Tik wod, pal malika', meaning 'one water and two milks' in ur-speak, and let us hope that normal service, and acceptable standards of sanity, will soon be resumed.