The Name of God.

Original title page

This anonymous little tract is actually by W.E.A.Axon. It opens with the story of how Louis Burger, a writer and philologist, was walking in the Avenue des Elysées one day during the Paris Exhibition, when he heard a familiar voice cry out, “Buy some nuts off a poor man, sir; twenty for a penny.” It was his old barber, fallen on hard times. When M. Burger said that selling nuts was no business for a man like him, he replied that if M. Burger could suggest anything better, he would gladly do it.

M. Burger thought for a moment, then tore a page out of his memorandum book, and began scribbling words on it. “Take this to a printing office,” he said, handing the paper over, “and have a hundred copies struck off; here is the money to pay for it. Get a licence from the Prefecture of the Police, and sell them at two sous a copy, and you will have bread on the spot. The strangers who visit Paris cannot refuse this tribute to the name of God, printed in so many different ways.”

The document was the name of God in forty-eight languages, and it did indeed rescue the barber from his hard times.

Mr Axon points out that though M. Burger’s list served an admirable purpose at the time, it was neither a long list, nor a very accurate one. But then considering that it was written down ‘on the spot’, perhaps Mr Axon is a bit unfair on the kindly M. Burger. But whatever, here is a sample of Mr Axon’s considerably enlarged list.

Name of God in various languages

One of the things that attracted me to Mr Axon’s curious little tract, besides its inherent oddity, was that it had an amusing modern counterpart in Carl Masthay’s article, “I Love You” in about 310 Languages, published in America in 1986. How did Mr Masthay come to compile his list? He tells us in his introduction:

“One day Ignacio Bastida, a fellow linguist and translator for Berlitz in Spanish, requested from me a list of the sentence ‘I love you’ in as many languages as I had so that he could give it to a friend to make up a special greeting card. At the time I had only 35 languages represented, but after a fast collection period of 2 months and a slow decline lasting 6 more months I found that I had a paltry list of more than 260 languages then.”

There are about 3000 languages in the world, Mr Masthay goes on, and about 5000 if one counts dialects, so that, impressive as his final total of 310 seems to a non-linguist, it is still only a fraction of the total possible.

Mr Masthay supplemented his list by making telephone calls to people who spoke languages which he didn’t. The results were often amusing. After all, imagine ringing up someone in Madagascar, say, and asking how one says “I love you” in Malagasy:

“Some informants listened to my spiel and answered my question promptly and gladly; others were cautious or defensive, for love is a strong feeling: ‘Why are you doing this?’ ‘You should not be asking such personal questions by phone.’ ‘Who are you?’ One person was quite snobbish, and a few hung up. That happened with a Cambodian woman just after her son told me the phrase too fast; or I made a call at the improper time (is 9.30 pm really too late?); or there were prank calls preceding my unknowing first-time call to someone (an Egyptian Arab). I either sweated or was uptight or was straightforward or was tired or sweet or informed – 90% responded with pleasure and 10% were too insecure and declined to help. The most helpful were the Asian Indians; the least helpful were some South-east Asian refugees.”

Here, then, is a sample of Mr Masthay’s delightful and extraordinary list:

I love you, in various languages