The Language of Infection

The Language of Infection

I share a home with linguists, wordsmiths and electronic media fiends. Conversation over the meal table is prone to the less travelled byways of grammar. We have a habit of resorting to verbal swordplay in our preferred language-other-than-English, preferring the soft option of leaving differences of opinion untranslated. Not that I want to give the impression that I have much more than the correct use of the English apostrophe to offer the younger generation. Languages were a bit of a struggle for me and most of my schoolmates; a necessary evil that stood between us and the doorway to higher education. French was a triumph of hope over experience, which an imagination in overdrive had to connect with the prospect of summer holidays in Brittany or the Dordogne. Weekly classes took place in series of draughty Scottish schoolrooms under the watchful gaze of severe looking teachers. German was even more austere. Only Latin held out a small glimmer of hope, but mainly because there was no real risk of having to put it to the test in everyday conversation. In more recent years my brief encounters with language have been journeys into new cultures, but I had little success until spurred on by an outbreak investigation in northern Brazil. The embarrassment of having to rely on a professional interpreter shifted me out of my linguistic comfort zone. I have been a student of Portuguese ever since.

Coming at a new language later in life has reminded me about those tricky little details of written and spoken language that we learn at school; grammar, vocabulary, and those exercises of structure and form such as spelling tests, parsing and precis. Faced with the challenge of these aspects of my lingua materna for a second time over, I have begun to recognise the linguistic aspects of the professional dialect I use with my colleagues. It has its own grammar, vocabulary and semantic rules. In order to open this language of infection to the wider population as a work in progress, this Blog will run a series of short commentaries. Longer articles can be found on the Priobe Network. The first of these; Saudacoes (Greetings) is there by way of introduction. A second more substantive chapter; Substantivos (Nouns) is one the way. Further articles on Adjectivos, Preposicoes and Verbos will follow. A general introduction can be found on the Priobe Net.

Others have written far more eloquently on aspects of these subjects. My most recent sources are:

  1. The Language Instinct; how the mind creates language. S Pinker. Harper Perennial Modern Classics, NY, 1994.
  2. The Language of God. A scientist presents evidence for belief. F Collins. Simon & Schuster, London, 2007.
  3. Portuguese, an essential grammar. 2nd edition. AP Hutchinson & J Lloyd. Routledge, NY, 2003



  1. When ones mother language is not the “international” language, and when one goes through 13 years of school education in the native tounge and has to switch to english as medium of instruction at uni and learning medicine of all the subjects, imagine what we go through!

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