ancient cartoon from The Leisure Times
This is a review of a book, and of a review. And an extensive flashback to Uni. The book is by Michael Meyler and Sunday Times review is lazy racism in print. Michael’s book is called ‘A Dictionary Of Sri Lankan English’ and it’s very well researched, organized, and written. It is also very brave, especially for a white guy. Dylan Perera’s Sunday Times begins with crude innuendo that the author is out of touch simply because of his race, but it does make two points. One is that there is no linguistic Sri Lankan English at all, only political. The other is that making a dictionary at all legitimizes ‘sloppy language’. These are two simple points, and assumptions, which are among the first things dispelled in Introductory Linguistics. Language is something so intrinsic to our very consciousness that it is difficult to discuss on an academic level. The language we use affects the work, marriages, money and respect we get. As such, even saying that Sri Lankan English exists is bound to face opposition. This proposition, embodied in this dictionary, does have the advantage, however, of being true. Sri Lankan English is a valid linguistic form. It is also mara interesting.
Language is something everyone knows but no one understands. Language is one of those things (like race, nationality, and the self) that seem so concrete in the moment but – in moments of study or meditation – emerge as entirely fluid. Language has changed dramatically over the last hundred years, and it changes every day. As Just Jack said – “You know you’re getting older when the kids on the corner have you baffled everytime they speak” (Listen). Language is also a huge class marker. Labov documented this in the first scientific manner, analyzing New York Dialects on a phonetic (sound) level, among others. There are actually measurable phonetic difference within languages – what we perceive as accent – and they are highly correlated with class. That is, rich and poor people talk different. And note that all Linguistics says is that they are different. There is no linguistic basis to say that one is better or worse.
A shprakh iz a dialekt mit an armey un flot (Yiddish)
A language is a dialect with an army and navy
The borders of languages are notoriously bullshit. Thousands of mutually gibberish spoken forms are grouped by common writing into the ‘Chinese Language‘. Conversely, Hindu and Urdu speakers can basically speak to each other, but don’t tell that to the stomping guards at the IndoPak border. One would write a letter, in the different devangiri or arabic scripts. How you break a language is very often how you break a country, hence it’s a bit sensitive.
As Written By A Suddha
but I digress
I always wondered why being a urologist isn’t funny everday, but I guess you get used to it. Jobs are like that. I mean, that Saudi Executioner said he had nightmares the first time, but not after (video|transcript).
Er, but beyond that metaphor for its own sake, it is actually possible to study language objectively. Which is the first problem with the Sunday Times article. It’s almost as silly as that letter in the Sunday Observer, asking the Dutch to apologize for building the Dutch Fort. The first few paras are just snide remarks about this para suddha even writing a book about Sri Lankan English at all. Like the ass-backwards response to the Galle Literary Fest, it just displays a proud provincial ignorance. Academic work isn’t affirmative action and it is possible for white people to write about brown languages and vice versa. I took some Linguistics and we used to transcribe and analyze everything from Swahili to Inuktitut (painful). Funny thing about science is that you don’t need to be schizophrenic to study psychology.
As Read By Anybody
The next question the ST brings up is whether Sri Lankan English is worth dictionarizing at all. In this one would probably refer Simon Winchester’s Meaning Of Everything, but I found it boring and it just sat by the toilet looking smart for a while. I think a dictionary is important as long as there are speakers of that, parole, shall we say. I mean, I like the book. These are just a few of the possible band names I’ve found:
Juki Girl: (=factory girl) (coll.) a garment factory worker
Cat Wash – a quick wash
The Tragic Detrainers: alight, get out of a train … as Sonnaboy said as they detrained at midnight (YY 164).
Jump Seat: a folding seat in the aisle of a bus
I mean, there is a different (and hilarious) version of English we speak here, and it’s worth documenting. And it is not a degradation or unimportant parole, People use it to have interesting, hilarious, mundane and vital-to-national-security conversations every day. All the Sunday Times objections are dispelled in a first year Introduction To Linguistics course. What they do teach you is data, respect for languages (in motion) regardless of race, class or creed. In that sense Meyler’s book is cool in that the data is solid, cited in a verifiable fashion and – on a casual flip thru – has all the important words that we use in Sri Lankan English. The only notable exceptions I found were ‘kakka betta’ and My only criticism would be that spoken language bits are cited to written works of fiction. It’s obviously ideal to have a sample of recorded speech, and also obviously impractical.
And I’ve digressed, it’s a good dictionary, despite the fact that the BRITISH ARE TRYING TO COLONIZE YOUR BRAIN! On a linguistic level it’s a quality entry to the research out there. On a more Sri Lankan English however, it’s just an entertaining book of words.
As a note, Michael Meyler is my Sinhala teacher. We don’t get grades, so I don’t think this connotes brown-nosing.