“My hovercraft is full of eels”

February 21 is the UN-proclaimed International Mother Language Day. It is a day that has been commemorated since 2000, and represents the day in 1952 when Bangladeshi students demonstrating for recognition of their language, Bangla, as one of the two national languages of the then-Pakistan, were shot and killed by police in Dhaka. The Day promotes linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism.

This year, I find the day to be particularly significant, as the theme for 2015 is ‘Inclusive Education through and with Language – Language Matters.’ The theme relates to a cause close to my heart, and also my doctoral studies – inclusive education. The United Nations maintains that:

“Languages are the most powerful instruments of preserving and developing our tangible and intangible heritage. All moves to promote the dissemination of mother tongues will serve not only to encourage linguistic diversity and multilingual education but also to develop fuller awareness of linguistic and cultural traditions throughout the world and to inspire solidarity based on understanding, tolerance and dialogue.”

This statement made me pause to reflect on what I consider to be my own ethnic language. Although both my parents’ families are many generations removed from the Punjab area of the Northern Subcontinent, I have grown up in Kenya. I speak Swahili and English with my father; French, Urdu/Hindi and English with my mother; Swahili, English and Urdu/Hindi with my brother; and a mixture of Urdu/Hindi, English, Swahili, French and Punjabi with other family and friends.  My grasp of Punjabi – which should presumably be my mother tongue – is woefully lacking compared with my command over Urdu and Hindi.

Nevertheless,  I would like to think, that even though I cannot proudly say that I am fluent in my own mother language, my multilingual background and experiences mean that I posses a broader cultural awareness and tolerance. Indeed, I believe that this diversity has fed my hunger for discussion and knowledge about the unique linguistic heritage of others around me, which is in fact, evidenced through some of my posts on this blog.

Memrise, an online language-learning tool recently launched their celebration of the 2015 International Mother Language Day. Their aim is to “do justice to a celebration of the glory and diversity of human language by inviting submissions of a phrase that represents both the joys and laughter, and yet also the frustrations of trying to learn another language.” Their chosen phrase “My hovercraft is full of eels” made me guffaw when I explored the origins of this seemingly-bizarre phrase.

This phrase was first used in a sketch set in England about a badly translated English-Hungarian phrasebook from the British TV comedy show, Monty Python’s Flying Circus. For the benefit of those who are unable to access youtube, a brief transcript of the relevant section is as follows:

A Hungarian tourist goes into a cigar shop looking for a box of matches, but doesn’t speak English, so he brings a badly-written phrasebook with him. When he tries to ask for matches, he ends up saying “My hovercraft is full of eels?”

Tourist: “Ah, ah, my hovercraft is full of eels?”
Clerk: “What?”
Tourist (points to matches): “My hovercraft is full of eels!”
Clerk (picks up matches): “Oh, this?”
Tourist: “Yes!”

And thus was born the comical “My hovercraft is full of eels.” Do feel free to contribute towards Memrise’s dream of creating the worlds’ largest collection of videos of people saying this rib-tickling phrase in their respective mother languages at this page.

Saneeya Qureshi © 2015


2 thoughts on ““My hovercraft is full of eels”

  1. Although I lack the breadth and expertise you have with languages, my own language experiences bring back some memories of liguistic confusion. Although I grew up in Australia, my first experience of non-mother tongue learning was French. At the time it seemed as relevant as learning Latin – this was pre-internet. When I was 19, I made my first trip abroad to Japan, armed with much enthusiasm but no Japanese. I soon remedied that and that language became my first non-mother tongue oral language as in the one I spoke to people in real situations.
    My language difficulties soon developed. When I arrived in the UK I thought that language confusion would not trouble me….. My first job was in an office and one day I was talking to one of my colleagues about his weekend. He told me that he had been ‘sold a pup’. I waxed lyrical about how I loved dogs of all kinds and particularly puppies. My monologue must have lasted a good 10 minutes, with the poor man failing to interupt me. He patiently explained that this English phrase means that you have been duped and had expected something nice, but that turned out not to be so.
    I will save my confusion, and that of others, when I used the Australian generic name for sellotape in England. Something only done once.


    • Konichiwa Carmel 🙂 Your ‘sold a pup’ story reminds me of how I too, went off on a canine-related tangent when one of my colleagues said they had to ‘go see a man about a dog’. On a different note, I just googled the Australian generic name for cellotape… unsurprisingly, the term is apparently declining in usage! Thank you for this amusing insight into how familiar terms can be associated with entirely different things around the world.


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