Thursday, 29 September 2011

Wrong to confidently claim ownership of English

by Jacob Dlamini, Business Day

A FRIEND recently sent me the following fragment from the 1983 annual report of the English Academy of Southern Africa: "To complete the picture as far as our specifically language-related activities are concerned: we (the English Academy of SA) were represented at a ‘Military Language Congress’ organised by the SA Defence Force (SADF) at Voortrekkerhoogte, in May this year; we have finally won our battle to have the ‘equals’ sign banished when a word is broken at the end of a line — the hyphen is back, in both English and Afrikaans."

As my friend, with whom I share a dark sense of humour about SA’s past, said: "Hurrah, then, all is well again in the land."

To be fair, the august academy has come a long way since the glory days of the 1980s, when it was successfully waging war against the SADF over the latter’s use of hyphens while the SADF was, well, trying to get a firm grip on that whole business of total onslaughts. Today, the academy’s vision includes a commitment to a "democratic society in which effective English is available to all who wish to use it, where competent instruction in the language is readily accessible and in which the country’s diverse linguistic ecology is respected". The vision is noble and realistic. SA does have a diverse linguistic ecology, with citizens fluent in more than the 11 official languages we have.

But how many of us appreciate the value of this rich linguistic ecology? How many of us appreciate what it means to have so many languages spoken in one country? How many of us continue to subscribe to the idea that a person cannot be considered civilised and sophisticated unless that person speaks suiwer English? Some South Africans insist on treating English as if it is the only language that matters, the only one worth speaking. Some of us, presumably dissatisfied with the English Academy’s, eh, abdication of its watchdog role, have taken it upon ourselves to police who speaks English and how. How helpful is that? What good is the myth that there is such a thing as proper English?

When the English (I mean native English speakers from England — not Grahamstown), say "I was sat", are they mucking up the Queen’s language? When English-speaking Americans display a unique relationship with the pluperfect tense (saying such things, for example, as "She had came" ), are they desecrating English? What about English-speaking Americans, who insist on using the word bring instead of take (" I will bring the car to the gas station" instead of "I will take the car to the gas station")? Are they, too, doing damage to English? The way people speak English might sound odd to some ears but only a provincial would dare suggest that there is a proper way to speak English.

Yes, there are basic rules of grammar and suchlike that help make languages standard in some ways. But these rules work only when understood pragmatically. Take the English rule against splitting infinitives. In some cases, the rule makes perfect sense; in others, it makes none at all. I believe it was Winston Churchill, a winner of the Nobel prize for literature no less, who pointed out some of the absurdities that arise from a strict adherence to the split-infinitive rule. As is the case with most things in life, rules make sense until they don’t. One needs to understand the context to know if a rule is needed or not.

This does not mean languages are a free- for-all. They are not. But, at the same time, we can’t assume that tenses for example only ever work one way. Take the example "I was sat." This is a common expression, especially in the Midlands and northern parts of England. The expression sounds odd to people raised on South African English, for whom the correct expression is "I was sitting."

But which sensible South African English- speaker would dare tell an English northerner, who speaks no other language than English, that he or she does not know how to speak English? Which cosmopolitan South African would dare suggest who speaks what quality of English?

Yet there are people out there with the, eh, confidence to say that English is "their" language. You can no more claim ownership of a language than you can claim ownership of oxygen. In a world where the best English fiction of the 20th and 21st centuries has come from writers such as VS Naipaul and JM Coetzee, who would dream of making nativist claims about the ownership of the English language? People might say what they like about "their" English but they must always remember what is at stake when languages are "nationalised". For example, a German anti-Semite is reported to have said once that a Jew did not become German by understanding Goethe.

People who disagree with my argument might respond with that well-worn question about what language someone such as me dreams in.

Well, as a Wits psychology professor once told me, most dreams are silent. Humans speak in tongues but dream in silence.