The English language . . . its peaks and pitfalls
America's perennially tweeting President-elect Donald Trump misspelt a word the other day. Furious at China's action against an American underwater drone, he thought it was an 'unpresidented' act. Of course he corrected himself soon after. In place of 'unpresidented' came the term 'unprecedented'. You might begin to wonder why powerful men in English-speaking countries must get their spellings wrong, or even their grammar. In his years in office, Britain's Tony Blair was prone to using 'reason' and 'because' in the same sentence, which was quite a departure from the way all of us were taught English in school. Quite simply, our teachers took pains to let us know that if in a sentence the phrase 'the reason' is employed, there is no place for the superfluous 'because'. Example: 'The reason she could not go to school was because she was ill.' The sentence is wrong. You keep either 'the reason' or 'because'.
But, again, the English language, with all its dynamism, has been changing in ways that are pretty mind-boggling. We will go back to the spelling situation, of course, but do know that the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) has just had some new words coming into it. The most notable among these new entries is 'Brexit', which is just as well. Once again, the English have contributed a new word to the language. Remember how Margaret Thatcher's use of her handbag led to 'handbagging' becoming an expression of righteous anger and grit combined? And then, of course, there are the terms we have lived with for a long time, 'pundit' and 'punditry' for instance. But have you noticed how changes in certain generally accepted expressions have come about lately? Time was when a sentence like 'the decision will have an impact on the environment' was properly grammatical. These days, you will have observed the change, with 'impact' having graduated to a verb. Here's how: 'The conference deliberations will impact policies around the globe.'
Terms like 'the article is a good read' are today in general usage. And with technology making increasingly deeper inroads into lives everywhere, we have grown familiar with 'upload' and 'download'. Not even acronyms have escaped the brush of change. Where once it was quite proper to employ NATO and UNICEF, today it is the in-thing, as one would say, to go for Nato and Unicef. Go back to that word 'twitter' or 'tweet', something that everyone, especially politicians around the word, seem to be engaging in all the time nowadays. Not long ago, the chief minister of the Indian state of Bihar, Nitish Kumar, let it be known that he did not use Twitter because only birds did that. And certainly he was not a bird! One quite does not know if the chief minister has changed his mind, if indeed he has fallen in line with the rest of the world.
But, enough of that. Back to the world of spellings we go. Donald Trump misspelt that word in his fury about China. We are not quite sure if he really did not know the spelling. Perhaps when he spelt it correctly --- 'unprecedented' --- the second time, he did so on the advice of someone who knew a thing or two about English on his team. We will never know, but we are glad the mistake was corrected. That again reminds us of the time when Dan Quayle, who served as America's vice president under George H.W. Bush, made a mess of potatoes. On a visit to a school, he asked a small boy to spell 'potato' on the board. The child did it, correctly. Quayle thought the boy was wrong. So he stepped up to the board and 'corrected' the spelling. It came out as 'potatoe'. The media had a field day discussing it, and their readers had a good laugh.
It is said that one of America's presidents, Andrew Jackson, was the man behind the expression 'OK' or 'okay'. It may be apocryphal, but the story goes that since his education had been limited, though not his military profession or his career in politics, the president simply wrote 'oll koreckt' on the files which appeared on his desk for his review. Despite being told that the correct spelling was 'all correct', he quite failed to master the spelling. He went for what he certainly must have thought was a brilliant way out of the problem. He took the 'O' out of 'oll' and the 'K' out of 'koreckt' and put them together as 'OK'. But, be warned, it could be just a story. Or maybe not.
Enough of America and its English. How are we coping with the English language here in our very own Bangladesh? For starters, know that something of the elitist has come into our use of English terms and phrases, even when we happen to be conversing in Bengali. There have been some intriguing and, one might add, irritating instances of artistes performing live on television responding to listeners' compliments with the English 'thank you so much!' Whatever has happened to 'dhonnobad'? As if that were not enough, many of our young people have developed an amazing penchant for such words as 'wow'. If you consider it from a serious point of view, 'wow' is a hollow term signifying a lack of seriousness. It is almost like the traditional English usage of 'how do you do' where the response is the same, 'how do you do'. A question is answered with a question, every bit of the two exchanges identical in form and shape and attitude.
As to the question of 'wow', back when people in our part of the world were young --- and we refer to Muslim children who were taught the 'siparah' in Arabic --- we did come across the alphabet 'wow'. In Urdu too, 'wow' is an important appendage to the language. But here, in today's English-drenched world, 'wow' comes to us without the sophistication you would expect in a language. There is something of the philistine about it. It is grating to the ear, in much the same way that 'like' is. Millions of young people around the world, and not just in Bangladesh, are trapped in 'like' as they converse in English. A couple of weeks ago, on the train from London to Oxford, this scribe noticed that a young woman in her late teens, in the company of her friends, fell to using the word 'like' after every second or third word in her conversation. So why does the use of 'like' leave us worried about the state of present-day English? Here's an example, in the form of a sentence liable to be used by a young person, in Bangladesh or anywhere else: 'I was, like, telling my friend, like, I didn't want, like, to watch the movie because it was, like, not to my taste, like.'
Grammar crumbles. The decline is speeded up by a further mangling of the language. Have you noticed how the very proper 'anyway' has these days mutated into 'anyways', thanks to some self-appointed grammarians of the English language? And how do you react when you see your teenaged child explode in spasms of 'shit' every time he is exasperated in some way or the other? That said, in countries like ours or in India and Pakistan, English has been evolving in ways that have little in common with the language as we have known it. In Bangladesh, a use of the phrase 'striking force' in reference to the police or RAB is not uncommon when the proper expression should be 'strike force'. The odd bit here is that even reporters in the English language media make this mistake, all the time. There has even been the instance of a journalist happily putting in 'straight jacket' when the expression should have been 'straitjacket'. And how about the headline --- 'headless body of beheaded man found' --- quite some years ago?
But let us not complain too much, for English, as they say, is not our mother tongue. Even so, we who do not speak English at home can nevertheless manage to pronounce proper names in English, and in other languages, quite well. Have you observed how woefully speakers whose native language is English fall short while pronouncing phrases and terms and words in other languages? On the eve of Partition in 1947, Mohammad Ali Jinnah addressed his people, in English of course, and ended it with 'Pakistan Zindabad'. Lord Mountbatten thought Jinnah had said, 'Pakistan's in the bag'. Now, why would Mountbatten get it wrong? Many westerners are not adept at pronouncing names. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman ends up being 'Sheekh Mujib Ar Raman' and Z.A. Bhutto mutates into 'Z.A. Buto'. When will they ever learn?
Let us call it a day. But before we do that, we might remind ourselves that the absence of the 'p' sound in Arabic can lead to some hilarious and unintended consequences. On a visit to India in the 1950s, King Saud --- he of Saudi Arabia --- noticed that many members of his delegation had gone missing in Delhi one evening. They had as a matter of fact gone sight-seeing or in search of more romantic adventure. An angry Saud told the Indian officials on protocol duty for him, 'I will complain to Bandit Nehru about them.'
See how the absence of a 'p' in Arabic ended up reducing Pandit Nehru to Bandit Nehru?r
Syed Badrul Ahsan is Associate Editor,
The Daily Observer