Michael Totten’s latest bloggage from Iraq is as informative as ever, but the thing that fascinated me most was a brief but interesting discursion into the use of the English word ‘Supermarket’ on a sign in a small town in Iraq.
What struck me about the sign on that store, and on many other stores in Iraq, was the English word “supermarket.” The only people in Saqlawiya who find English helpful are the Marines. And me.
I’ve seen this far beyond Iraq. Even in small towns in Libya – one of the most closed societies in the world – I found store signs in English. The amount of English in a genuinely cosmopolitan city like Beirut is even more striking, though no longer surprising. Beirut, at least, has a huge tourist industry. Imagine how differently you would think about Arabic civilization if small towns in Kansas and Nebraska – not to mention large cities like New York and Chicago – had storefront signs in the Arabic language even though no Arabs live there. Perhaps the word “imperialism” wouldn’t seem so much like a stretch. Of course no one forces Iraqis or Libyans to put English words on their signs, so it’s telling that they do so anyway, and that they did not choose Chinese or Russian.
I disagree with Michael’s use of the word ‘imperialism’ and I think he answers that point himself in the very next sentence. An even more demotic variation on the inexplicable prevalence of English puzzled me many years ago BB (Before Blogging). I spent some time in a few fairly rough parts of Croatia and one can hardly miss the prevalence of racist and sexist graffiti on the communist-era concrete tower blocks. The odd thing is that mixed in with the usually ‘Jebi Se’ varient epithets in Croatian, you will find floridly racist threats or extravagant anatomical references in more or less grammatically correct English. And this in an area that was not exactly a magnet for English speaking tourists, particularly in the middle of the then on-going war.
The huge number of people who speak English in Croatia can be easily explained by the ubiquity of satellite dishes, which is why I often referred to the local Croatian English dialect as MTV English. But that does not answer the question of why in a linguistically and ethnically homogeneous area (such as unlovely New Zagreb in Croatia or Saqlawiya in Iraq), people use written English when there is no commercial or political pressures to do so.