Emperor’s language – Empire’s weapon
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’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.
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
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
”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.