Saturday, October 16, 2010

Standard English and SL English

Standard English and SL English
(Lakbima – By Izeth Hussain)

I have been reading only in a rather perfunctory way the articles on Standard English and Sri Lankan English that have been appearing in our newspapers for several weeks. But I believe that a person of my generation who followed an English Honours course under Ludowycke from 1946 to 1950 might have something useful to contribute to the discussion because I recollect that it was precisely during that period that the status to be given to Ceylon English became a matter for serious discussion. I believe that was largely the consequence of the fact that some years earlier Hector Passe, one of our Lecturers, had got his Doctorate in England with a thesis on Ceylon English.
He did not however lecture to us on that subject. He was associated with the notion that there was nothing really to be said for Ceylon English because it had no vitality, no idiomatic richness, and it was therefore just incorrect English. The opposite notion was held by Doric de Souza, another lecturer, who had much to say about Ceylon English while teaching us linguistics. He was thoroughly appreciative of Ceylon English, even when he declared that he did not know how an English word came to have a certain meaning in Ceylon English. His familiar example was “He hooked it”, meaning that someone ran away very fast. Actually it is from cricket, meaning a ball that is never put away gently to the leg-side but always hit very hard to the square-leg boundary. I have seen it used by Max Beerbohm in an essay written in the early decades of the last century. That usage of “hooked” fell into desuetude in England but remained a very familiar term in SL for many decades.
We English Honours students of that time were aware of course that Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, written entirely in American dialect, had long gained recognition as a masterpiece by the most sophisticated and rigorous literary critics such as Eliot, Leavis, Trilling and others. We were aware that William Barnes’ Dorset dialect poems had classic status, but we never read him. We did read Synge, whose use of Irish dialect in his plays was recognized as an enrichment of the English language. We were aware that the Scrutiny critics, by whom our tastes were formed in those years, gave a high evaluation to Hugh McDiarmuid whose best lyrics were written in Scots dialect. The critics who evaluated him very favorably included one of the best of the Scrutiny group, John Speirs, who wrote a fine book on The Scots Literary Tradition. In later years I became aware that the best of Sir Walter Scot’s novels used Scots dialect for the speech of his characters, novels which I proceeded to read enthralled.

Standard English

It is understandable that we thought of works using other than Standard English as marginal, even though they included some masterpieces. Consequently we were not disposed to accord much merit to the use of Ceylon English in the plays of Joseph and Lanerolle, and its brilliant use in the Sunday comic columns of Fly-by-Night (Tarzie Vittachi) and Sooty Banda (E.M.W. Joseph). West-Indian literature had still to emerge, except that George Lamming was already making his mark in London, while by way of African writing there was only Amos Tutuela’s The Palm Wine Drinkard which used Nigerian English. Two Indian novelists, Mulk Raj Anand and R.K.Narayan, had gained international recognition, both of whom conveyed an authentic Indian vision through excellent Standard English. Then suddenly, around 1948, there burst forth a literary thunderbolt in the form of G.V.Desani’s immortal All about H.Hatterr, making triumphant use of Indian English, which was highly praised by Eliot and others. We thought of it only as a comic novel. But, significantly, around 1980, I made a critical assessment of the novel in a Lanka Guardian article bringing out its cultural and religious dimension. That was possible because I had long broken out of the box in which I had been bred in the colonial chicken farm of Ceylon. I could take seriously as high art an Indian novel outraging the conventions of Standard English.
I come now to the differences in attitude towards Standard English (SE) and its variants in the sixty years that have elapsed since I was a student. The Standard form of English and other Western languages came to be established in consequence of the drive for unity that was at the core of the nation state. There was none of that behind the Ceylonese aspiration to learn English, the main motivation being provided by the desire for upward mobility. The main change that came after around 1960 was that the motivation for studying English was both the desire for upward mobility within Sri Lanka and outward mobility having behind it the desire to emigrate or work temporarily abroad. During that time English was in the process of becoming established as the global lingua franca. In today’s World Cup series one side may be French, the other German, while the referee may be Italian, but they communicate in English, that is in Standard English. At the same time, in the field of literature, local variants of English have been growing in importance. All these should be regarded as the manifestations of the profound revolutionary changes that have been going on across the globe. In the realm of pedagogy, it was unthinkable that Ceylonese should be taught anything but SE, but that has become thinkable in today’s Sri Lanka.

Utility value

It seems to me self-evident that it is SE that should be taught to Sri Lankans who want to learn English because what they have in mind is its utility value. The study of Sri Lankan English could be a socio-linguistic exercise at advanced Degree levels. What I have in mind can be illustrated by looking into the possible significance of the fact that the term “hook it” fell into desuetude in England while it continued in vigorous usage in Sri Lanka. With the background of the upward mobility of the British working class, perhaps it came to be felt that the true-born Englishman never runs away. In Sri Lanka, there are situations in which it makes good sense and is also honourable to hook it.
In favour of SE I must point out that English is an extraordinarily rich language capable of accommodating non-English realities. I can detect nothing specifically Indian in the beautifully lucid, precise, evocative SE in Narayan’s fiction, but that medium is used to convey an unmistakably Indian vision of life. I must point also to the paradoxical case of Vikram Seth’s verse-novel At Heaven’s Gate. I set out to make an analysis of it as illustrating the vision of the cosmic man of the twentieth century because its location is California and none of the characters are Indian, and yet it is literature of very high quality written in excellent SE. But in the process of making that analysis I came to realize that all that was at the level of the text, whereas the sub-text is profoundly Indian. I was later told that I had been proved correct when Seth returned to India, unlike Naipaul and others, to write his Indian novels.
While acknowledging the value of SE, we must certainly recognize that SL English can be a vehicle for serious literature, provided that it is not just a case of broken English. Some years ago I wrote an article on Carl Muller’s railway trilogy, invoking Bakthin’s notion of “carnival” to make the point that the trilogy should be valued for its subversive content. I would place a high valuation also on Rajiva Wijesinha’s early political novels, which too make superb use of SL English. Though widely regarded as supercilious and cynical, they have for me the authentic note of deep anguish over what the JR gang was doing to Sri Lanka. There is much more to be said of course on the subject of SE and its variants, but this article will have to suffice for the time being.


July 5th, 2010 | Category: Education

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