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Rajpal's Column

22nd November 1998

Creamier English when Pol Pot kicks the bucket

By Rajpal Abeynayake

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"Former Cambodian Strongman Pol Pot kicks the bucket." A Rupavahini newscaster announced the passing of the Cambodian strongman in these terms.

This interesting bit of information was passed on to the public by Manique Gunesekera, senior lecturer in English, who presented a paper at a recent conference titled "English officalese: fiddling or fixing."

She says, that fifty years after Professor Passe's 'Use and abuse of English' was published, it is interesting to examine how much of what he considered "abuse" is now in "use".

"Dr N. M. Perera was a populist leader," said another Rupavahini announcer, who was a little better than a MTV announcer who declared that the "UNP criticises the governments' handlings of the war."

Manique Gunesekera in her own analysis of these isms, says that her investigations reveal that "the fluent speaker of English today is a bilingual speaker, and that this bilingualism is reflected in officialese."

She also says that how much of it is "fiddling" with the rules and how much of it is "fixed" is difficult to define.

Those who listened to her, or at least some of them who seemed to come down on her like a ton of bricks, seemed to favour the idea that most of this usage is "fixed", even though they broke out in gales of laughter when she rattled off some of the examples of this kind of deviant English. . For example, "Munchee lemon puff its more creamier" . Transgression or tradition? Or consider "St .Thomas' College Mount Lavinia will confront with Science College in the play off of the match for the President Trophy tournament which begins July 8th at the Sugathadasa Stadium ''( The Island July 7th 1998.)

How much of this fiddling has to do with" bilingualism being reflected in officialese?" The reader will probably have to decide that . But, many Indian scholars in particular, who participated at the Association of Commonwealth Language and Literature Studies ( ACLAS ) annual conference seem to favour the idea that the kind of usage described by Manique is increasingly becoming fixed.

Nila Shah of the Jasani Arts College, in a fairly piqued reaction said "English is my language etc. etc., " and went on to make the inference that it's a form of literary elitism to deplore this kind of usage as a form of fiddling with the lingo.

But to go from "Muncheee Lemon Puff is more creamier" to "Cambodian strongman Pol Pot kicks the bucket" is to go on a very long journey indeed. If some of this usage can be considered "fixed" due to the exigencies of bilingual usage or whatever other causes, what distance is the user allowed to go down the slippery slope?

Then again, if some of this is indeed due to the bilingual character of the English user, is it also not justified to arrive at the conclusion that we the Sinhalese are probably comprised of those who cannot speak either English or Sinhalese?

Munchee Lemon puff more creamier??! (Incidentally, watching Kumar Ponnambalam speaking last week to a TV moderator, one couldn't help but feel that he speaks better Sinhalese than some worthies of the Sinhala commission, some of whom incidentally speak no Sinhalese at all.)

This is a germane consideration for a nation which always seemed to have a kink about the usage of English. Since the conference mentioned earlier was held in Peradeniya, some wag couldn't help mentioning a Doric De Souza quip made some moons ago at the Kelaniya University. (The late Doric de Souza was the mercurial head of the English department in a bygone epoch.) Apparently, Mr. Souza chose to speak in Sinhalese to an audience of Buddhist monks and Sinhala literary elites (you get that kind as well) at a Kelaniya University function.

As his speech progressed, Doric noticed that certain members of the gathering were quite amused at his somewhat quaint usage of Sinhalese, the "Sinhala yeduma." But, in his nonchalant best he stopped them in their tracks saying " why do you laugh at my Sinhalese I don't laugh at your English."

For a self conscious Sinhala elite, that must have been an absolutely devastating put down.

But, if the "Engreesi yeduma" or the English usage is being fiddled with, how come those changes don't seem to have altered the visions of the Sri Lankan business community for instance who still hire English speakers in preference to graduates?

If Manique is right, English usage has already gone down the slippery slope, never mind whether we choose to call that particular phenomenon fixing fiddling or frigging.

If English usage is in the pits, then why does a business community seek to apotheosize a language that is spoken in a half pidgin deviant manifestation?

Or is broken English better for business ,than halfway decent Sinhalese?

This is a hypothetical case of course, but does any management comprised of those who speak the less than perfect argot, look a little funny in the face insisting on employing the English literate for corporate jobs?

As for the debate about fixing or fiddling, its is an argument in perpetual movement because English is a legacy that lies uneasy upon a self conscious literary elite.

The Indians maybe more self effacing in this regard, because India is essentially not self conscious about being deviant.

There appeared a comment in a recent literary journal by an author who observed that Kiran Desai's hugely successful new book "Hulabuloo in the guava Orchard" is not unusual, observing that this is so because eccentricity is the norm in India. (. though that in itself may be a contradiction in terms) Remember reading in a book that its only in India that a stark naked woman can walk through the middle of a village without anyone taking a second glance at her.

Such self effacement is not our stuff, and the way we squirm at the thought of offending the English language is best conformation. As far as English is concerned, we are in a fix.


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