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Wednesday, 5 May 2010

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Emperor’s language – Empire’s weapon

‘I am using your language so that you will understand my world, but you will also know by the difference in the way I use it that you cannot share my experience.’

Dominant languages like English or French now have been seriously used by their one time colonies for creative writing. To present the culture and rhythm of the lives of former colonies, they have been obliged to handle their emperor’s language in an innovative way.


Salman Rushdie

In Salman Rushdie’s 1980 ‘Midnight Children’, the gift of midnight turns the young Saleem Sinai into “a sort of radio”, enabling him to understand all the many languages of India. This magic radio, with its translingual powers, is a powerful metaphor.

Not only Midnight Children itself, but much of post-colonial literature can be seen as such a magic radio converting the many languages of the world into a selected set of metropolitan languages.

So efficacious is this radio that readers are often unaware of its working: they forget that underlying the English, French or Portuguese, they read are other languages.

We should not forget that once upon a time highly literate Westerners could be expected to understand Latin and Greek, French and German, and speech or texts in those languages could be quoted directly in the original language within books written in English.

Now, the situation has changed and the Westerners now are expected to have knowledge of the languages of their former colonies to comprehend their literature. Post colonial literature may represent communities where people speak Bengali, Swahili, Arabic or Chinese Mandarin – to mention only a small selection.

To complicate matters further, many Asian languages use scripts other than the Roman alphabet – from Arabic through the variety of scripts in use in the Indian subcontinent to Chinese.

Non-English words

There are a significant number of non-English words can be seen in Midnight’s Children. A sampling of assorted nouns: Kurta, Garam Masala, pakora, dharma-chakra, resgulla…….Most of these designate culture specific referents found only in India, without precise English equivalents. Many forms of the address predictably crop up: amma, mamu, bhai, baba, bibi; the honorific “-Ji” is appended to English words as well as those in other languages – babaji, sisterji, cousinji. Then there are also a number of exclamations or utterances with exclamatory force: wah wah! Arre baap, hai-hai.

The frequency of words in South Asian languages and the large number of specifically Indian allusions are highly significant features of Midnight’s Children. As Edwin Thombo, a research scholar in English points out, English must therefore be appropriately nativised and made free from certain habitual association, develop a new verbal playfulness, new rhythms, and additions to its metaphorical and symbolical reach.

In the context of Sri Lankan English fiction, this process of nativisation can be clearly seen. P.B. Rambukwelle’s novel ‘The Desert Makers’ provides some interesting examples to prove how a Sri Lankan version of English exists.

Rambukwelle lines up a conversation as follows:

You know what this plant is, my friend?. . .

”Of course, why not, brother Baaron? Cha! This is our hemp plant no?”

Language and vocabulary used in Chitra Fernando’s short story collection Three Sisters also prove how the indigenous variety of English exists in Sri Lankan English fiction. The following part quoted from ‘Three Sisters’ gives a better idea on how non-native variety of English behaves.

”Mother said, Loku Naenda has more shradda than all of us”.

We can see many aspects of an indigenized version of English in this brief part of the short story. Here, Chitra Fernando innovatively use phonetics to create Sinhala sounds by using the vowel compound ae, and she uses Sinhala kinship term ‘Loku Naenda and uses word shradda, which can be hardly replaced by an English equivalent.

As the final example, I would like to bring another example from Rambukwelle’s ‘The Desert Makers’.

‘Picking up Medduma she placed him on uncle Heeng’s shoulders and in the gesture of a parting blessing she cracked her knuckles loudly on his temple’. Here, Rambukwella brings some Sri Lankan culture into action in his novel. Taking the proper names and other characteristics into consideration, one can conclude that Rambukwella tries here to use English Language to explain a native English speaker an experience that he/she will never thoroughly acquire.

Emperor’s language is now in the hand of empire. This is the time of empire to write back.

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