Passenger Emergency Intercom Unit

Borges in 1951

Borges in 1951

I read a travel book many years ago in which the writer, Paul Theroux, takes a train journey from Boston to Patagonia, stopping for a couple of weeks in Buenos Aires to pay a visit to the great Argentinian writer, Jorge Luis Borges.

Borges, who was bilingual in Spanish and English, was nearing the end of his life at the time, and was blind, and he asked Theroux to read to him from the works of Kipling, since he particularly liked Kipling. He kept stopping Theroux as he read in order to point out this or that felicity, and in particular he noted examples of nominalisation  – the characteristic of English to make noun phrases from other parts of speech – remarking over and over, you cannot do that in Spanish, and marvelling at the potential for compactness of the English noun-phrase.

As it happens I was in Boston myself over the weekend, and saw the following notice in English:

Passenger Emergency Intercom Unit at End of Carriage

Which was also presented in Spanish (and I provide my own literal-minded transliteration):

System of the Intercom for the Passengers in Case of Emergency Situated at the Extreme of the Carriage

And I thought of Borges. You cannot do that in Spanish. Not only is the noun phrase ‘Passenger Emergency Intercom Unit’ more economical that the sequence of prepositional phrases qualifying the head-noun sistema in Spanish; it also very neatly permits the dropping of the verb is situated or located, or even the adjectival situated or located, since no ambiguity arises, as it would in Spanish.

My travelling companion noted drily that Passenger Emergency Intercom Unit at End of Carriage is not exactly a felicitous or beautiful phrasing, and I suppose I agree; and I also freely admit that Spanish can probably do things no other language can (I also like the Spanish estrema for the English end, for example). But there you go. That is English in a nutshell. Economical, paratactic, swift, and effective.