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Saturday, September 20, 2014

Sunday, March 4, 2012
OP-ED

Shifting Images

Mind your language, please!

Can someone tell me what's happening to the English language? I am not even a subject of the Queen, so why do I feel compelled to defend the Queen's English? How ridiculous is it that I, a by-product of British colonisation, should be writing a plea to save the language of the colonists from the onslaught of the new wave which has made grammar and spelling virtually obsolete!

My frustrated attempt to defend the English language has been provoked by a text message from a young relative scheduled to visit me last month. She missed her flight and sent me the following abbreviated text: "mssd flt 2day .sry. lmk if 2moro ok.luvu." Took me quite a few reads and a consultation with an SMS savvy friend to decipher the message. (For those of you who are a little slow in the uptake like me, here is a translation: "Missed flight today. Sorry. Let me know if tomorrow is okay. Love you.")

Not being a native speaker, I have already been through several phases of learning and relearning English. First, we had to memorise grammar and practice diction in elementary school. Later, when I developed a true love for English literature, I read and tried to emulate the styles of many of the classic writers, mostly British. A rude awakening came when my work supervisor advised me that my language was a bit too formal and that I needed to let down my hairliterally. Hence, followed a period of learning business jargon: I mastered terms like scaling-up pilots, drilling down experience, benchmarking outcomes. I even accepted the use of nouns as verbs such as prioritising and incentivising.

By the time I moved to the US, I was pretty confident that language would not be a barrier to the transition process. My complacency lasted only a week, or until my first visit to McDonald's. Between my alien accent and my feeble attempt at ordering (in a complete sentence) a large hamburger, without cheese and fried potato chips, my order was "lost in translation." After a more determined second attempt and an uncomfortable pause (which seemed like eternity since there was a long line waiting behind me), the girl at the counter said at supersonic speed: "Oh? Big Mac, no cheese, small fries." Before I heaved a sigh of relief, I was faced with the next challenge! "For here, or to go?" asked the cashier. This may sound all easy now but in my early days in the US I didn't have a clue that she was asking whether I intended to eat at the restaurant or take the meal home!

The dizzy speed at which the younger generation and techies are creating words, spellings, and idiomatic expressions has made me "linguistically challenged." Try hard as I might, I am unable to embellish my sentences with expressions like "cool, awesome, rocks, nuts, like, and what's up." I admit that learning to speak this new lingo would make me an informed member of the global English-speaking clubor should I say the hip global culture? But I just haven't graduated from the archaic use of full sentences, correct tenses and unabbreviated vocabulary! Hence, on a day-to-day, basis I am constantly faced with, believe it or not, a language problem. And, it's not a problem of simple incomprehension. My dilemma is how to answer back. Should I pretend I am hip and answer in slang? Or should I just be "me"a minority who speaks an outdated form of English?

I am fully aware that a language must evolve with time and reflect the changing reality of everyday life. I also appreciate that English has become the lingua franca of the world because of its adaptability and flexibility. Some changes will occur naturally due to social, economic and technological demands. What is difficult to accept, however, is the unimpeded butchering of the English language by those who are creating a "convenience version" by compressing, annotating and truncating words at will. Change is always a sign of progress but, can we, at least, work within prescribed standards and have some quality control mechanisms for the English used in the public domain?

Since, there are no officially appointed guardians for the English language, I guess we have to count on self-appointed authorities to resist the contamination. As for me, being somewhat old fashioned, I will continue to be peeved by the ad-hoc changes where spelling, grammar and style are sacrificed to brevity and convenience. I am especially aggravated by the OMGs, LOLs and CUs

If you haven't figured out what these abbreviations mean, look up the online dictionary for text messages or I will explain when I TTYL! (Talk to you later).

The writer is a renowned Rabindra Sangeet exponent and a former employee of the World Bank.

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