This is a beautiful poster I spotted recently in a bar in north Dublin. It’s titled How to order a beer around the world and features phrases one can use in various languages to, well, order a beer. Combining my keen interest in languages with my even keener interest in beer, it drew me to itself like a lamp draws a moth.
I have a million comments to make about this poster. But before I do, let us understand what it is for. Contrary to what its title might suggest, its purpose is not to teach you how to order a beer correctly in various languages. Its purpose is more to entertain and amuse than to inform. It belongs in a genre of what I call decorational multilingualism (more about that later). So let us not expect much of it.
Still, the first thing I have to say about it is that it is surprisingly correct, at least in the languages I can comment on. No obvious spelling mistakes or missing accent marks or cock-ups like that. So, first impressions are very positive.
On a closer look, you may notice that some languages are written in their own proper orthography while others are in a maky-uppy phonetic transcription. Even more interesting is the question, which languages get which treatment? One can see that non-European languages written in a non-Latin script, like Korean and Japanese, are transcribed here. That’s kind of understandable. Greek, although a European language, is also transcribed because it also uses a non-Latin alphabet. That’s understandable too. But then we have languages like Czech, Slovene and Hungarian: they do use the Latin alphabet, so there should be no reason to transcribe them – and still they are transcribed. Why? In fact, the only languages not transcribed are good old “Western” European ones like German, Danish and French. What’s going on here? It looks like somebody is following Donald Rumsfeld in making a distinction between “Old Europe” and “New Europe”. Old Europe doesn’t need transcription because it’s “ours”. But New Europe, those funny, formerly communist countries that we now call “our EU partners” but that are still a little exotic to us, they do need transcription. No hard feelings, I’m just making an observation: the Iron Curtain may not be there in the physical world any more but it still exists in people’s heads (like a Europe-wide extension of the German Mauer im Kopf concept), or at least in the head of the person who designed this poster.
Interestingly, this poster also features phrases in Irish and Scottish Gaelic. Let us gloss over the fact that while Irish is written here in its correct orthography, Scottish Gaelic is again in this maky-uppy phonetic transcription. I guess only the author knows the reason for that. Instead, let’s examine the Irish phrase itself. It says “beoir amháin, le do thoil”. While technically correct (it literally translates as ‘one beer please’), it is wrong pragmatically. Nobody, in any of the few places where Irish is spoken in Ireland, orders a beer like that. Instead, people order beer by stating the brand of beer they want, or the quantity, or both: “pionta Guinness, le do thoil” (‘a pint of Guinness please’) would be the normal phrase.
Which brings us back to the point I was making in the beginning: this poster is not for instruction, it is for entertainment and decoration. For all I know, people may not be ordering beer exactly like this in Denmark or Japan either. But that doesn’t matter, not to the poster’s author and not to most of its readers. It’s just a way for people to have fun with languages.
I said earlier that this poster is an example of decorational multilingualism. I define decorational multilingualism as instances when a multitude of languages are used – on public signs, in spoken announcements or elsewhere – not for the practical purpose of communicating something in several languages, not even for the purpose of teaching or demonstrating how something is to be communicated in several languages, but merely for the purpose of decorating, entertaining, having fun.
There is nothing wrong with decorational multilingualism, provided it lives up to basic standards of correctness. This poster is doing very well on that front, as far as I can tell – I’d gladly take it home with me! Sadly, our world is filled with examples that don’t and I intend to name and shame some of those on this blog in the future. Stay tuned.