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A snooty English speaker's reply to Malinda Seneviratne

One of the points I made in my article "Sri Lankan English the state of the debate" was that the level of debate on the issue in the public forum remains simplistic. For this reason I welcome the fact that Malinda Seneviratne has entered the fray ("Sri Lankan English: another Spooty English speakers' project?" Sunday Observer 23/05/2010). The fact that he has put the opposition case so forcefully can only be a good thing for "the state of the debate". But unfortunately, he couches his argument in language so unwieldy (dare I say, snooty?) as to be impenetrable to many who might agree with has ideas.

Malinda's article addresses what he sees as an elitists agenda to introduce something called Sri Lankan English for the masses while the Colombo elite continue to speak what he labels "Snooty English". I have only one personal grudge, but it is perhaps central to understanding my own position on the subject Malinda has written that "Michael Meyler ...argues against the notion of language standards. "The passage he quotes in this context is in relation to the validly of a "non-standard" style in literature. But elsewhere in the article I have argued strongly in favour of the notion of language standards. Indeed, establishing "standards" in the local variety of English is precisely the reason for codifying Sri Lankan English.

Now I have to confess to being on dangerous ground here. As a non-Sri Lankan English speaker myself, and as a citizen of the former colonial power, I am obviously a prime example of what Malinda terms "Snooty English speakers". I am not sure that this term is very constructive, but I believe that the point he is making is a valid one. If I may paraphrase it in my own terms, it is that language is a class-ridden animal, and none more so than English (and nowhere more so than in my own country), where we have recently returned to the earlier norm of having an Old Estonian as prime minister!).

Here in Sri Lanka language also defines class divisions to a great extent. The English spoken by the stereotype "Colombo 7" Sri Lankan is scarcely distinguishable from the English of an upper-middle-class. Brit. Further "down" the social cline, the influence of Sinhala and Tamil becomes more pronounced, and at some undefinable point it becomes "broken English", messy grammar, "not-pot" accent, menus, etc. And we laugh.

The problem is, where do you draw the line between "acceptable standard Sri Lankan English" and the rest? Option 1. You say that there is no such thing. The only standard is the British one. We'll allow you to talk about Poya Days and stringhopper and to drop the funny English diphthongs, but apart from that, no variation is deemed necessary or desirable. Option 2; a free-for-all in which the messy grammar and the miss pelt menus become the norm.

No prizes for guessing that I'm voting for Option 3; a compromise (always a difficult thing to achieve) in which it is acknowledged that a significant number of Sri Lankans speak English as their first language, and many others are bilingual in English and Sinhala or Tamil, and that these people don't all talk like Rohan Ponniah. They speak a variety of English which reflects the local culture, environment, history and linguistic context, and which (crucially) adheres to certain (as yet hazily defined) standards.

And no discussion of standards can ignore the distinction between speaking and writing. The written Sri Lankan standard remains close to the established British/international norm (remarkably close, it seems to me, it is in the informal colloquial language that the greatest number of variations from the established standard are found.

Recognizing the validity of these variations in a colloquial context democratizes the language, giving people the confidence to speak in a way that comes naturally to them, without having to feel inferior or stigmatized. Surely anyone who opposes elitism would approve of that?

A couple of confessions. I entered this arena as the author?/compiler? of a "dictionary" of Sri Lankan English. But in truth it is not really a dictionary, because it focuses only on the differences between "standard" British English and "standard" Sri Lankan English. And of course in reality there are infinitely more similarities than differences. A standard Sri Lankan English speaker will read this paragraph with as much ease as any other English speaker.

A true "dictionary" of Sri Lankan English would also include all the words and expressions which are common to every variety of English (cat, love, biscuit, whatever), and the distinctively Sri Lankan bits would suddenly become an insignificant part of the whole.

Second confession, I have used the term "World Englishes" in the context of legitimising Sri Lankan English as one of those "Englishes" But in truth I am not that comfortable with the term. For the same reasons outlined in the previous paragraph, I prefer to think of Sri Lankan English as one of many varieties (plural) of English (singular).

Malinda Seneviratne's article ends with a challenge which I believe (if you strip away the sarcasm and the double negatives) makes a valid point.

"Here's a reality check; are there any standard-bearer for 'Sri Lankan English' who are neither Snooty English Speakers nor loath to speak or 'work' Sri Lankan English in non-Orientalist and snooty ways?"

I confess, I am a "Snooty English Speaker" And it is true that many of the people promoting the Sri Lankan English agenda are speakers of a standard Sri Lankan English which is at the upper end of the class cline referred to earlier.

Many learners of English (lower down the cline) are in no doubt that what they want to learn is "British English", that the unreconstructed British model is outdated, irrelevant and unrealistic in the current Sri Lankan context.

The writer is a teacher of English, British Council.

 

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