By Richard Boyle In recent weeks there has been comment in the daily press, even an editorial, regarding the inclusion of the interjection aiyo in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). The surprise is to be expected, although it must be recognized the OED does not value words but assesses their degree of usage, and the [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Aiyo! Singlish? Dipping into the Dictionary – Book


By Richard Boyle
In recent weeks there has been comment in the daily press, even an editorial, regarding the inclusion of the interjection aiyo in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). The surprise is to be expected, although it must be recognized the OED does not value words but assesses their degree of usage, and the fact is aiyo is a common word in Sri Lankan English. It is not news either, as the word first appeared in the OED in September 2012 along with aiya, and adigar the previous year, as documented by this writer in “Aiyo! Lamented Aiya to the Adigar” (The Sunday Times, November 8, 2015).

The OED provides what are termed “illustrative quotations” from literature – and now modern formats – to demonstrate the use of the word in question and variant spellings, if any, thus presenting its history. Chamber’s Journal, it is believed, was the first to use aiyo in 1888; “believed” because many of the words in the OED have been antedated (i.e. an earlier quotation has been found): “’Are you crying for your father?’ ‘Aiyo, aiyo!’ wailed the girl. ‘I shall never see him again!’”
The primary Sri Lanka-inspired illustrative quotation is by Leonard Woolf from The Village in the Jungle (1913): “Aiyo! Aiyo! My little Podi Sinho!” The next is from then Ceylon’s Fashion Panorama (1971): “‘Aiyo! It is our Kalu’ they all cried.”And the most recent is by S. Manickavasagam in Power of Passion (2009): “Vijaya touched Rajam’s forehead and exclaimed, ‘Aiyo. She is running very high temperature.’”
In addition, there is a quotation from RK Narayan’s Tiger for Malgudi (1982): “Aiyo! Never thought our beloved headmaster would come to this end.” This is surprising, as the Indian equivalent is normally aiyoh. These quotations are frustratingly few though illustrative enough. There might be antecedents to the 1888 foreign source in mid-to-late 19th-century local literature, though none have been come across so far.

In the OED September 2016 quarterly list of new inclusions the comparable interjections, the aforementioned aiyoh from Mandarin and aiyah from Cantonese appear with the common definition: “Chiefly in Chinese contexts: used to express distress, pain, surprise, etc.” The first especially is in common use in India, as confirmed by The Hindu of October 4, 2016, which included the feature “Aiyoh! It’s there in the dictionary” that derided the word’s inclusion:

“I’m appalled!” says Shailaja Vishwanath, former English teacher and currently freelance writer-editor. “It is not English. At some level I understand they (OED) are adapting to regional usage. But at the level of a language, as a writer and editor, it hurts me deeply. I believe in purity of language for all its effect. I cannot accept these words in the OED, though I may use them in my everyday life within a context. But does their inclusion in OED validate it? I don’t know. The OED included the laughing emoticon some time ago and it took me a long time to come around to accept that!”

A dictionary editor commented to me: “It’s ironic that people who have a lively regional post-colonial form of English want to go back to a ‘pure’ colonial-style language.”Author and veteran journalist Gita Aravamudan, dismisses the inclusion as “just hype”. “I think we have a vibrant language of our own in India drawn from different parts of the country and we don’t need an endorsement from others for our language. The OED is quite irrelevant now.”

The notion that the OED is irrelevant to Indian English is ironic as the OED has been criticised for its relative neglect of World Englishes. Nevertheless it is the most important source regarding the English language worldwide, the third edition of which is in progress, containing some 615,000 words, supported by 2.5 million illustrative quotations (Shakespeare 33,300, with 1,600 from Hamlet). The longest entry is the verb set with over 430 senses consisting of approximately 60,000 words.

There is a further reference to aiyo on the local satirical website News Curry. In an article titled “British People Finally Have a Word for Brexit – ‘Aiyo!’” the anonymous satirist gets creative: “The word is a means of expressing distress or regret and accurately sums up the collective feeling about the result of Britain’s referendum vote which will see the country exit the European Union. One person said, ‘Although we have been using terms like ‘disaster,’ ‘catastrophe’ and ‘bungling’ none of these accurately reflect both the meaning and the sentiment of Brexit. ‘Aiyo’ is a more precise term and we will be using it forthwith when we discuss Brexit.

‘It will enter the day to day vernacular very soon and is likely to be used by the English more than Sri Lankans itself,’ he added.”
One more word included in the OED in 2002 that will also cause surprise is Singlish. Singlish is defined as “An informal variety of English spoken in Sri Lanka, incorporating elements of Sinhala”, is said to be “in current use”, and its etymology “a blend of Sinhala n. or Sinhalese n. and adj., English n. Compare earlier Japlish n., Spanglish n., etc.”

The first use recorded by the OED is from an obscure source, The Daily Colonist (Victoria, British Columbia), March 22, 1972: “Spreading in Ceylon was a new patois dubbed Singlish—a blend of poor English with Sinhalese.” That the writer claims there was “a new patois dubbed Singlish” means there could be an antedating quotation.

The second quotation is from the Christian Science Monitor of January 15, 1980 (p. 21): “I tried vainly to catch . . . at least one English word in the outpouring of Singhalese ones. There is a common intermix of the two languages referred to as ‘Singlish’, but this time there was nothing to help.”The third and final quotation is from D. Kalupahana’s History of Buddhist Philosophy (1992). In the Introduction p. xiv he comments: “As someone educated in both Sinhala and English, I have been in the habit of writing what is sometimes referred to as ‘Singlish’ (Sinhala idiom rendered into English).”

There is another entry for Singlish, used as an adjective as well as a noun, in the OED: “An informal variety of English spoken in Singapore, incorporating elements of Chinese and Malay.” A word of local interest that entered the OED in 2000 and which I also haven’t addressed earlier is the botanical noun marool, (the evergreen “bowstring hemp”), etymology Tamil marul, usage “now rare”, and defined as:

“The moorva Sansevieria zeylanica (family Dracaenaceae), a herbaceous plant of Sri Lanka, whose leaves are a source of tough fibres. Also: the fibre produced by this plant. Plants grown under the name S. zeylanica are often other species of the genus Sansevieria (formerly also known as Sanseviera).”
The first quotation, dated 1813, is by British surgeon Sir Whitelaw Ainslie from Materia Medica Hindoostan:  “Mrool kalung… Marool Root. Sänseveria zeylanica.” Another, dated 1866 states: “Marool, the long fine fibre of Sanseviera zeylanica.”

The final quotation, dated 1901, is by John Ferguson, editor of the Ceylon Observer, from his Notes on Aloe, Sisal, & Ramie Fibres, Dye and Tanning Products, Drugs, etc. (p. 37):  “A far more hopeful prospect exists with reference to wild fibrous plants, such as the Sanseviera Zeylanica, Niyanda of the Singhalese and Marool of the Tamil.”

As the word is described as being “now rare”, the value of finding later, “post-dating” quotations makes the search worthwhile. And there is one, albeit with variant spelling, dated 1935, from HF Macmillan’s Tropical Gardening and Planting with Special Reference to Ceylon (p. 411):

“Niyanda, Sinhala, Maral, Tamil (Sansevieria zeylanica) – A herbaceous plant with succulent rigid, concave or furrowed leaves, blotched and mottled with grey, 4-5ft high, native of Ceylon, India etc. When in full bearing it is estimated to yield about 1 ton or more fibre per acre. The silky white, tough fibre is used for weaving into fine mats, twine, etc., and by natives for bowstrings. It was valued in London in 1925 at £30 per ton.”

Today, due to its hardiness (apparently it “thrives on neglect” and is “difficult to kill”), and exotic appearance, the marool has become a globally popular houseplant, commonly known as “snake plant”, “the devil’s tongue”, “mother-in-law’s tongue” and even “Ceylon bowstring hemp”. Sansevieria zeylanica are extremely long-lived plants. They may also function efficiently as cleaners of indoor air, removing harmful pollutants.

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