Improbable Research

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Tue Jan 27 15:58:43 UTC 2004

 The English disease

If we all spoke Japanese, Sars might not be half such a problem. Marc
Abrahams explains

Marc Abrahams
Tuesday January 20, 2004
The Guardian

One's aspirations can kill - if Dr Sakae Inouye, of Otsuma Women's
University in Tokyo, is correct - and Chinese aspirations are particularly
deadly. Dr Inouye devised a simple theory about a vexing public health
problem.  Her theory is this: the English language, when spoken by someone
who normally speaks the Chinese language, can be lethal.

Dr Inouye recently drove her train of logic through the pages of the
medical journal the Lancet. There she writes: "Severe acute respiratory
syndrome (Sars) is transmitted via droplets spread by infected
individuals. Droplets are generated when patients cough and, to a lesser
extent, when they talk, during the early stages of disease. I believe that
the efficiency of transmission of Sars by talking might be affected by the
language spoken." Here are the details of Dr Inouye's reasoning. They are
subtle. They are breathtaking. They should perhaps be read silently.

 The disease called Sars seems to have originated in China.

 China has had millions of visitors from the US, and even more visitors
from Japan. SOME American visitors (about 70 out of 2,300,000) got the
disease, but NO Japanese visitors did.

 There must be a reason for that.

 The reason must be: language. In both Chinese and English, many sounds
have a strong accompanying exhalation of breath - but Japanese has no such

 The final step in the chain brings these pieces together. It is
frightful. Dr Inouye writes that: "A Chinese attendant in a souvenir shop
probably speaks to American tourists in English, and to Japanese tourists
in Japanese. If the shop assistant is in the early stages of Sars and has
no cough, I believe American tourists would, hence, be exposed to the
infectious droplets to a greater extent than would Japanese tourists."

Dr Inouye does not specify a particular dialect of Chinese, so at the
moment all are suspect. If one's spoken language is dangerous, can it be
altered? Nearly a century ago, future Nobel Prize winner George Bernard
Shaw raised this very question. His play Pygmalion concerns a professor
who painstakingly alters the speech patterns of a young woman. In the
printed preface, Shaw wrote this: "the change wrought by Professor Higgins
in the flower girl is neither impossible nor uncommon ... But the thing
has to be done scientifically, or the last state of the aspirant may be
worse than the first.",5500,1126570,00.html

 Marc Abrahams is editor of the bimonthly magazine Annals of Improbable
Research (, and organiser of the Ig Nobel Prize

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