Minding “our” language: a post-colonial obsession
Posted on June 20th, 2010

Ajit Randeniya

Sri Lankan newspapers appear to regularly report worrying reports of urgent needs such as medical supplies to hospitals, and as the recent flash floods sickeningly demonstrated, the re-engineering of the city storm water drainage network needs to be undertaken urgently.

Curiously however the Colombo elite, instead of pursuing these vital social needs, appear to be busily engaged in addressing some perceived problems with the “ƒ”¹…”Sri Lankan variety’ of English!

Now, if memory serves us right, President Rajapakse may have raised the issue sometime last year that all Sri Lankans need to gain proficiency in the English language and Information Technology as essential “ƒ”¹…”Life Skills’; not a bad idea in view of the continuing dominance of English and IT in global trade and development. He may even have floated the idea, in the same context, that Sri Lankans need not have any concerns about speaking English “ƒ”¹…”our way’ in the interest of “ƒ”¹…”getting on with it’.

The current flurry of activity by certain sections of the Colombo polity could well be a campaign against President Rajapakse’s idea of making English accessible to the younger rural generations, disguised as an expression of “ƒ”¹…”concern’ about the declining “ƒ”¹…”standards’ of English. It could also be a reaction by those who have traditionally considered English their private property!

Regardless of the motivating factors that underlie it, this ridiculous “ƒ”¹…”debate’ attracts attention for sociological reasons.

The position of the English language in Sri Lanka, like in all former British post-colonial societies, has always been something more than a medium of communication. Its real social relevance was aptly described by the brilliant post-1956 Peradeniya generation when they dubbed it “ƒ”¹…”kaduwa’; the capture of the post colonial economy, business, bureaucracy and social structures by the local collaborators enabled them to use English to demarcate the boundary between the “ƒ”¹…”rogues alliance’ that they constituted and the masses who maintained their linguistic and cultural independence through the ugly and shameful colonialism of five hundred years.

The flip side of this situation was that the masses themselves saw English as signifying an inheritance of collaboration with foreign invaders. The dawn of the World Wide Web based electronic media are erasing these entrenched positions, but slowly.

The current discourse however, appears to be an initiative of the academic types who concede the existence of a local variety of English, and rather patronisingly, advocate its full recognition. Pitched against this position are the “ƒ”¹…”practioners’ who argue that there is no such thing as Sri Lankan English, but just good writers and bad ones.

The lonely voice in the practitioner camp, it appears, is Rajpal Abeynayake; one of the more competent English language journalists in Sri Lanka. There are others who appear to see current moves as part of an “ƒ”¹…”elitist agenda’ to create a “ƒ”¹…”vulgar’ Sri Lankan version of English for the masses, while the Colombo elite retains the “ƒ”¹…”more civilised variety; this concern however appears unfounded because no one will be have the capacity to govern the use of a particular variety of English by different groups of people.

Not surprisingly, the British Council too has sought to weigh in to the “ƒ”¹…”debate’. Their particular interest however, is not hard to read: they market the ‘International English Language Testing System’ (IELTS) as a standardised test of international English language proficiency for admission to Australian, British, Canadian, Irish, New Zealand and South African academic institutions, and some 2,000 universities in the US, and for immigration to Australia and Canada; in 2008, more than one million people around the world had to sit for IELTS!

In a situation like this, the best the bystanders can do is to cheer the side we favour and prompt both sides to get down to the brass tacks so that they keep the discourse real!

Firstly, the existence of a “ƒ”¹…”Sri Lankan English’ amongst the many varieties of Global English is not a universally accepted fact; the use of a few peculiar Sri Lankan colloquialisms and the intermingling of some Sinhala words within sentences do not go far enough to differentiate Sri Lankan English from the rest of the sub continent; the common accent marked by extended vowel articulation and rhythmic intonation also sees to that.

A quick comparison of Sri Lankan English with the variety of the English language spoken by the American adherents to the Amish, Mennonites and other religious sects known as the “ƒ”¹…”Pennsylvania Dutch’ in the US demonstrates this fact: this particular group of people manipulate the grammar elements of English to a particularly convoluted form, with the adjective and noun arranged in reverse order to Standard English, and verbalise in a manner akin to other “ƒ”¹…”Germanic’ languages, making it nearly unintelligible to “ƒ”¹…”normal’ English speakers.

When the Amish say “ƒ”¹…”Throw Papa down the stairs his hat’, they mean “ƒ”¹…”Throw Papa’s hat down the stairs to him’; they speak of “ƒ”¹…”tying the dog loose’ and “ƒ”¹…”outening the light’; “ƒ”¹…”eating myself’ and “ƒ”¹…”he eats me’ mean, not cannibalism, but finding one’s own food and someone else feeding them respectively! They call people outside their group “ƒ”¹…”outlanders’ and when they ask for a “ƒ”¹…”toot’, what they’d really like is a paper bag.

Now that is a “ƒ”¹…”variety’ of English!

Judging by some notices on Japanese hotels this writer has seen, Sri Lankan English does not rank close to the Japanese version either. Here are some examples: “It is forbidden to steal hotel towels please. If you are not a person to do such thing is please not to read notis”; “You are invited to take advantage of the chambermaid”; “Cooles and Heates: If you want just condition of warm in your room, please control yourself”. In the bar, they serve “Special cocktails for the ladies with nuts”!

Are there any Sri Lankan equivalents to these?

When it comes to English speaking too, any time spent on aping the BBC or received pronunciation (RP) will be a ludicrous waste of time because what RP represents is a degenerated form of vowel sounds of Sanskrit during its evolution to neutral English. In addition, those who try and fail will suffer the ignominy of sounding like Paikiasothy Saravanmuttu!

One can only agree with Rajpal Abeynayake’s assertions that there need not be a debate on Sri Lankan English, and that the emphasis needs to be on “ƒ”¹…”good’ writing. This is so because, as Abeynayake puts it: “Those who eschew grammatical English will fall behind in the race of “”‚ and for “”‚ ideas.”

What flows from this argument is that the discourse on improving, or stopping the slide of, English “ƒ”¹…”nationally’ is essentially a waste of time, and all the country can do is to impart a basic standard of correct grammar through the educational system. The needs in terms of broad help and “ƒ”¹…”guidelines for good writing’ for people who require particular skills for specific purposes need to be accommodated within special schemes.

While teaching and evaluating English skills, the powers that be need to unburden themselves of the “ƒ”¹…”reverence’ with which they tend to treat English, a hangover from the effects of mental colonisation, and consider that it is just another language devised for conveying ideas between brains without surgery.

However, no human is capable of saying or writing all they mean, because the thought process is viscous and words are slippery. The use of the right word in right place appears to be the trick that helps most! Whenever ideas fail, words need to be invented: it is commonly believed that swearing was invented as a compromise between running away and fighting!

As noted by George Orwell in his 1946 essay “ƒ”¹…”Politics and the English Language’: “To write or even speak English is not a science but an art. Whoever writes English is involved in a struggle that never lets up even for a sentence. He is struggling against vagueness, against obscurity …” Orwell has also opined elsewhere that “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as if it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish, squirting out ink”.

The aspiring writer needs to be warned against the use of euphemisms as a means of hiding unpleasant truths, a practice that prevents the writer from sticking to the matter at hand. There is always the risk that one writer’s frankness is vulgarity for some one else. Notwithstanding that concern, an “ƒ”¹…”ancient mariner’ would always be just an “ƒ”¹…”old sailor’ no matter how you say it; the word “ƒ”¹…”indolence’ does not make laziness any classier; surgeons do not have to ‘ligate’ arteries when they just have to “ƒ”¹…”tie’ them to stop the bleeding! Similarly, people often overlook the fact that words have many meanings: the word “ƒ”¹…”good’, as G.K. Chesterton noted has different meanings and, “If a man were to shoot his grandmother at a range of five hundred yards, I should call him a good shot, but not necessarily a good man”.

What this writer has been trying to convey is that the English language is nobody’s special property but the property of the imagination. When it comes to rules for speaking and writing the English language correctly, it is worth noting that any fool can make a rule, and most writers can learn to bend or break them for the purposes of clear expression after adequate mastering of the rules!

One Response to “Minding “our” language: a post-colonial obsession”

  1. Fran Diaz Says:

    Good article by Ajit.
    Learning some English en masse in Lanka will certainly help remove some post colonial false values, from Lanka’s society. Also makes it easier for people to be computer literate plus get jobs. Some of us can learn HIndi, Chinese, German, French etc. as well !

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