Cheers And Tears For English

Baavji, English is a funny language, says Amitabh Bachchan in the Hindi movie Namak Halal. In the academia and the English media all over the English-speaking world there is growing concern about the decline in English speaking and writing standards., also in its popularity as a subject of learning. American Universities are worried that fewer and fewer students are opting for English major.

This funny language is going through bad times. And good times too. First, there is a slide in the interest to study the language and also a lackadaisical attitude to speaking it or writing it. The level of teaching that language too has come down. English campuses everywhere are worried about this downturn.

The Wall Street Journal published last week an article by Oliver Kamm, an editorial writer at the Times, London, calling for democratization of that language and for liberating grammar from pedantry. Democratization is happening already as evident from the way different linguistic communities are refashioning English to agree with their grammar conventions.  .

 The Economist. Says, “The English language, as we all know, is in decline. The average schoolchild can hardly write, one author has recently warned. Well, not that recently perhaps. It was William Langland, author of Piers Plowman, who wrote, “There is not a single modern schoolboy who can compose verses or write a decent letter.”

In Sense of Style, a Penguin publication, Steven Pinker found that in the United States recent graduates, including those with university degrees, seem to have no mastery of the language at all. “They cannot construct a simple declarative sentence, either orally or in writing. They cannot spell common, everyday words. Punctuation is apparently no longer taught. Grammar is a complete mystery to almost all recent graduates.”

But if we go by the accretions to the vast English-speaking community, the scenario changes. Nicholas Ostler writes in Forbes, “And India, set to overtake China in population by 2050, is avidly trading on its English expertise. It is notable that beyond the 330 million or so native speakers, perhaps twice as many more use it as a second language. English, with its simple sentence-structure and openness to borrowed vocabulary, is often thought well suited to be a global medium.”

India may be the country to have the second largest English-speaking population in the world but the complaints about the poor standards of English (forget Kamm) elsewhere are true of not only Indian academia but also its media where every rule in the grammar book, relating to subject-verb agreement, to the use of modifiers, correct spelling, clichés, officialese and punctuation is broken not only in reporting but also in writing editorials. When I read the English that appears in news reports, articles, editorials and features appearing in our print and Internet media, I observe a steady decline today in their English standards.

As a person, who has worked for nearly forty years at the desks of three national dailies and as a teacher of mass communication at three universities in the country, I have been a witness to the ignorance of basic rules of grammar among journalists (reporters, copy editors, and leader writers) whose knowledge of grammar is based on praxis or even hearsay. I doubt if basic principles of grammar is a part of the curriculum in the universities.

Two important factors might have played an invisible role in the changes that have overtaken the language. They are colonization and immigration. The colonies avenged British colonial rule by diluting English of its royal pedigree, The Indians injected hundreds of words into English from their languages, enough to compile a parallel English dictionary known as Hobson-Jobson Dictionary. The Americans rejected British pronunciation and spellings and even prepositions. With their contempt of the royalty, they have tinkered with both the King’s English and the Queen’s English. The spellings have changed. Prepositions have been dropped like “jumped out (of) the window.’

Now, American fiction writers have begun using proper nouns as common nouns, what are known as generonyms, Bru for coffee, Marlboros for cigarettes, Johnny Walker for whiskey, Kleenex for tissue etc.

The blacks sculpted a dialect known as Ebonics based on their own grammar as a token of revolt against the English spoken and written by the whites. They use double negatives (I don’t know nothing). They disregard subject-verb agreement (They was coming). Transform interrogatives into declaratives (you coming up’ for ‘are you coming up?’) They make the sentence sound both declarative and interrogative. Less go is let’s go; whassup is what is up? Each colony remade English in the process of acculturation.

Immigration has brought into both Britain and America millions of Africans, West Indians and Hispanics who speak mixed lingos in places like London and Birmingham, San Fransisco and Orlando. Where the local boys and immigrant boys go to the same schools, the children speak a language that baffles their parents.

In despair, an Australian wrote The Englishes in the sixties, alluding to the appropriation of native or vernacular sounds and meanings by the mainstream languagee. The English language is constantly evolving, transcending time and space. The English in The Hindu today is different from what appeared in that paper in your father’s time. The English in the Caribbean, is different from standard English (if there is one) because it is influenced by both British English because of colonization and by American English because of the proximity of these countries to the American mainland.

Writers like Bernard Shaw had issues with the English language. He died leaving behind him a large fund for purging the English language of its illogic.  Pedantry is bad, as Kamm says, but not grammar, Languages are means of communication. A communication is incomplete if the person it is addressed to cannot make sense of it. A grammar evolved through consensus is necessary for successful communication. Even body languages differ from community to community. We are all living in a kind of global village where languages, interacting with each other, lose their virginity. Maybe Kamm is making a case for as many grammars as there are Englishes.

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