Home  -  Back Issues  -  The Team  -  Contact Us
      Volume 10 |Issue 18 | May 13, 2011 |


 Cover Story
 Wild Life
 Human Rights
 Writing the Wrong
 Photo Feature
 Star Diary

   SWM Home


Expressions and Lasting Impressions

Najmun Noor

Every monarchy demands loyalty from subjects but citizens of colonies challenge the arrogance in jingoism. In doing so, the so-called loyal subjects unwittingly conjure versions of a lingo that colonial Brits may have found appalling. We often hear how someone, in a speech or lecture, has murdered (!) the English language. Harsh words for mere expressions. But are the subjects of erstwhile colonies getting even?

Expressions, expressions! Depressions lack them, repressions suppress them. There's contradiction in paradox, thrift in miserliness, vision in farsightedness, yet impertinence in innovation. The sky's the limit when conceiving options but that's another myth if not a fallacy. How can there be a sky with a limit?

Look at the bright side. Juxtapose your position on play-on words and you have good humour at your disposal. My favourite cockney joke with Bangali Brit friends was a description of how the passing wind (uh uh .. I refuse to be tempted to use the last two words the other way round!!) blew off the woman's hat and tousled her hair.

Another Brit (true to their skill of striking brief conversations!) observed: “airy, ain't it?” –apparently alluding to the windy conditions. But the woman found the remark demeaning and shot back: “what'd you expect, feathers?”

It's fascinating how dialects and cultures tell upon expressions and humour in the English language that is spoken and written across borders and in the different colonies. While the colonised nations give the English language its very own flavour, each of them fondly accuses the other of either destroying it or changing the meaning of a statement with every expression!! Today, it's our turn.

The West Indians go up and down in their scale of calypso like emphasis on words in a sentence and inevitably replace “the” with “de” and expressions of the letter “a” with “uuhh”. They don't hesitate to toy with the expression itself with conjunctions and prepositions stranded in isolation.

In other words, for an expression meant to be pronounced: “why are you harassing the woman?” could end up in a Caribbean expression: “what are ya huraassing de womaaaan for?”

It's not difficult to imagine the plight of the proof-reader!

The Indian from the sub-continent has been the subject of one-sided jovial jousts well before Peter Sellers joined in the foray into the jocular assault. Even left on their own, the South Asians' will, without a doubt, end most sentences with a note of interrogation. For example, in an imaginary conversation or fairy tale telling, you may hear them say: “Then the princess kissed the frog prince, no?”

It's left to anybody's imagination how that conversation might have gone, if dragged on, at say, the Buckingham Palace or the Windsor Castle.

Here are a few lines of an imaginary conversation of the same fairy tale between a British butler and a South Asian peon.

“Then the princess kissed the frog prince, no?” said the Indian peon trying to bring a climax to the tale. “So, did she or didn't she?” Asked the royal butler

“Did she or didn't she, what?” the Indian peon replied

“You know, kiss the frog, silly?” Asked the impatient butler “You're right, it sounds silly, princess kissing the frog…it's a fairy tale, only (pronounced “wonly”)” said the Indian peon, suspiciously, now beginning to suspect the intellectual capabilities of the British Raj. “You still haven't told us” snapped the imaginary butler from “The Remains of the Day”, at this point brimming with eagerness to assume the role of the Psychopath in “The Silence of the Lambs.” “What (pronounced “vhut”) are you telling (not “saying”)? I said (not “ told”) you already, but….. The princess kissed the frog, no?”¬ “I don't get it–yes, she did kiss him, no, she did not, which is it?” said the butler in his final attempt. “Yes, I told you, no?” came the eternally confusing reply.

At this point, the butler is willing to plan a covert operation to steal the Kohinoor to give it back to the Indians for the right answer!

Can you imagine how the conversation may go with Sri Lankans? Simple. Just change the interrogative “no” at the end with the interrogative “la”! And you've got the Sril Lankans plundering the English language in the high seas!

You think this sort of conversation is preposterous? Just buy a plane ticket from South Asia to a country in South-east Asia.

You name it – Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia. When you speak to the nationals of these countries, you wonder why they don't complete uttering the words (or sentences) completely. It may be something to do with their dialect, but it seems that when they're speaking English, it's as if they have hot food in their mouth making it difficult to complete the words and like us here in the sub-continent, they also leave the conjunctions and prepositions stranded like orphans!

Here's an example of a remark if you're negotiating with the roadside vendor in any of the three countries above. At the end of a bargaining seesaw battle, the vendor concludes: “Ok. Ok. Ok. Ah ghee you foh fa daala (what he means is he'll give it to you for five dollars), for YOU only!” (…and your immediate thought is: “what? I didn't ask for any ghee or dalda, I just wanted the Gucci watch – faa daalah, too much!”…)

“…and mistaa, what are you looking in my mouth? …”

But one must not shy from giving the Aussies an island load of credit. As the real Prisoners of Motherland in Down Under, they've not played around with the language as we have. Their poking and wedging are somewhat limited to toying around or stretching the cockney dialect and accent. There isn't any hideous change the Aussies have brought about.

Yet it's not only the outsiders that are the marauders. In many instances, the Brits too are complicit and treacherous. If there was any British version of the Hara-kiri, many in England would commit it without batting an eyelid on the day Margaret Thatcher wanted to impress Ronald Reagan.

She declared with consummate ease: “you ain't seen nothing yet”. There have been tussles on a multitude of expressions on both sides of the Atlantic and this one was a real giveaway.

Having said that, the biggest challenge on the language and expressions have come from the Americans. But this is far from being ill-intentioned or short sighted. America is the equivalent of cultures, verbiage and traditions across a pocket full of several England(s).

We'll have more on that fascinating discussion of America's raids on the English language and evolutions leading to its own repository of expressions, next week.

Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2011