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Wednesday, 2 June 2010



Dialect dilemma

“We cannot imitate James Joyce let alone follow him” – something I heard years ago. And how!

Joyce is Irish. And he is not the only one with a lucid style. Oscar Wilde, W. B. Yeats and Anne Enright who stands out for modern generation, they all have peculiar styles. May be because the Irish literature has a strong influence of Celtic mythology.

But then again that statement goes well for Dickens, Lawrence and so on too. Where does the sacred secret rest? Of course they had a language of their own. Now bid me speak the truth - these Whites had the benefit of dialect. Not fair enough.

There’s more to the story. This is exactly why the Sri Lankan English literature lags far behind its Sinhala counterpart. Wait up, this sounds so acute an accusation. I need to explain – I fear your wrath.

Lawrence deals with miners in ‘Sons and Lovers’, and you can see how often he is wallowed in those dialects of the blue-collars. Do we, Sri Lankans, have that advantage? No. Because here in our land, I hear of only two camps: those who speak intimately, but not first-hand familiar with the country’s originality, and those who use the language for formality with no rich vernacular vocabulary. Even Simpson wouldn’t have said this simpler, I suppose.

Further off, you can see campaigners unnecessarily going to town about Sri Lankan English. Both camps cash in to this but, credit where it’s due, the first camp’s contribution weighs much heavier.

Sri Lankan English literature has the contribution from both these camps all the same. Carl Muller is one good example, being a Burgher. He is not my cup of tea, but when it comes to writing he stands out for a kind of English – Sri Lankan Burgher English. He is perfect at portraying his community, and the job is easier because the Burghers speak English intimately and natively.

But the likes of Muller have an issue. They are not familiar with the roots of the country – firsthand I mean. Leonard Woolf wrote ‘The Village in the Jungle’, and he didn’t have to adhere to any particular dialect. He used Sinhala terms here and there. It will be no issue for us the Sinhalese, but it will be pain for a foreign eye. I have my doubts if Woolf has done a perfect job, just because he wrote the account in his native language. He may be native to language, but, still, not to the culture.

The Whites are not that good at writing about our culture. And we are not that good in their language writing about our culture. This issue has been troubling me for some while, at least till I saw Tissa Abeysekara put his foot down on making the language our slave.

Making the language our slave – good slogan for a campaign! After all, this is the best option left for us when we cannot enjoy a pure English dialect in our country. But how to make it our slave, that’s the sizzling question. We may think over the words and be creative on our own. Perhaps we can make our prose beautiful in our own way. I admire Abeysekara’s English, beautiful but a tad boring here and there.

There are people who have overcome this dilemma I now recall. Elmo Jayawardena and Nihal de Silva are some recent models. Jayawardane penned down what is extremely non-English in ‘The Last Kingdom of Sinhalay’. His writing runs in two layers: formal in historical descriptions and intimate in normal narratives.

The language shift in ‘56 was novel and pace-setting, but I do not think it took a toll on us. There was no particular dialect even in pre-’56 literature, save its somewhat formal style. The difference is then writers tried their best to hold on to the British rule of language.

There was no development in English whatsoever, of that I am pretty sure. It remains the same old administrative language and only a few care about its creativity. Now that’s some bit of irony with all that English education we had since grade three. For a country like India, English comes naturally with education. I envy to see more Indian English writers emerge, when ours are left unsung. They have clinched the Nobel Prize. They have clinched the Man Booker Prize.

And all these lead to a sore market in our country. When they publish 1000 or 2000 copies of a Sinhala book, an average English book will be only 500 copies or a little more. Now hear this! There is rarely anyone to purchase these books written by poor Sri Lankan English writers.

Forget about foreign literature – only a little portion of our population pays through the nose for such entertainment. Only Ken Follett is available for a song that is Rs. 650 I think.

So back to square one. Our market doesn’t encourage the writers to take a long pull about making the language their slave. If our readers and publishers start thinking seriously of Sri Lankan English writers – now we’re talking - that will be the day we can breed some hope of braving the dialect dilemma.



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