English with a laugh
Years back a book went round titled ‘English without tears’. Then it
got replaced by a more positive title, ‘English with a smile’. I
remember titling a book review, ‘History with a smile’.
This term ‘English with a smile’ is really an understatement. It
should be changed to ‘English with a laugh’ for two reasons. One is that
this language, the brainchild of a large island in the Northern seas
(whose early history is one nettled web), is just now bubbling with loud
laughter at its incredible and fantastic spread all over the globe.
Everyone including Buddhist monks have fallen head over heels with it
forgetting all the bloody drama, plunder, genocide and all, that
followed British conquest of the highlands.
Once a piece was presented by this writer focusing on a row of
Buddhist monks tripping over their robes and running in haste to a
certain venue. Picturesque scene enhanced by the glare of saffron hue of
the robes. The placid meditative demeanor was now back to zero.
They were rushing to procure the front seats in a Hall where a Course
in Spoken English was about to begin. It may sound sacrilegious but for
them, it seemed to be a terrible mix—up of priorities, English First,
Nirvana, Second... Through out most of Asia today, the hunger for a
grasp of this language is just enormous. Our own newspapers cry out this
greed by carrying ads as, ‘Learn not only how to read and write and
speak in English but how to eat and sleep in English’.
Even the Englishman could be ignorant of latter skills. Unless he
grills himself in one of our mushroomed tutories that carry pompous name
boards as Oxford English International, Embuldeniya, Universal Academy
of English, Kalalpitiya.! The glowing epithets, the English language has
gained over the years are so many. And I just cannot refrain from
mentioning a few though I cannot vouch for their total veracity. It is
the language of international communication.
It is the language of world trade and commerce. It is the language of
the magic computers and inevitably the Internet. It is the language of
technology. It is the language of aviation. The airplanes could come
crashing down if the pilots could not read instructions always
transmitted in English. ! Imagine the macabre havoc. From a tip in the
North to a tip in the South and from a tip in the West to a tip in the
East imitating Magellan , almost every human has at least a smattering
knowledge of it, sprinkling his or her own language with a few pieces of
it using them correctly or incorrectly. Use of English is imbued with
Prestige value too.
Even so long after the Suddas have left our shores it seems only to
increase as evidenced by some of our main media stations heralding the
onset of Sinhala news in English....
Was the global sweep of English deliberately manipulated? No. It
first grew and grew parallel with British Empire building .Some say this
empire embraced two thirds of the world at one time while some envious
ones refuting that say it was a mere one fifth. The Empire that the sun
never set on –that tells a lot. Its language duly certainly out—raced
languages of other Western colonial powers as the Portuguese, Spanish,
Dutch, German and the French.
I have almost forgotten the other aspect that has dubbed English with
the title, ‘English with a smile’ that I have suggested to be
transformed into ‘English with a laugh’ for actually over the years its
use really has raised many a bout of laughter. In this perspective it
can be even termed ‘English with a guffaw’. Do not misunderstand me for
I am not here laughing at those who misuse English. In fact to make up
for its popularity it deserves to be misused especially by those who
have not had a formal grilling of it.
I remember writing about a ‘Scratching Session’. Main figure in this
drama was a school head who though not at all proficient in English had
a habit of conducting his staff meetings in English perhaps to impress
the Western oriented females on the staff, a set prone to giggle ,a
habit spawned out of comfy living... One day he invited everybody to
scratch along with him.
Everybody was bemused and the giggles grew louder when he ordered
mammoties and handed each one to a teacher asking them to ‘Scratch with
him’. Refer to an English Sinhala dictionary. Meaning given for scratch
is ‘Mathu Pita sooranawa’ corresponding to the meaning ‘preparing the
earth for cultivation’. The poor man learnt his English from the
dictionary. These bricks or gaffes are known as English bricks. There
was the Radala (aristocrat) in Kandy who had informed a foreign
dignitary that the Kandy Lake is seething with padlocks (a direct
translation of Ibbas).
I myself have suffered from ‘English bricks’. As an administrator, I
had once spent days racking my brains over the term Orang Utan inserted
in a College inventory compiled in English by an earlier officer paying
his Pooja to English though he had an inferior knowledge of it.
To be continued