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by Adrian Sobers
“I try to speak the Dunn language. . . You are addicted to Mobb-phonics, Infamousbonics. – (Prodigy, Silent Storm)
In the introduction to his essay, Paris Review Interviews, Vol. IV, Salman Rushdie recalls a conversation with a fine gold jewelry maker.
He asked her why she was only working with such an expensive material and she pointed out the malleability of gold: “You can do anything with gold, you can twist and turn it and it will take. whatever shape you want it to take. This got him to think about the similarities between gold and the malleability of English.
“Unlike other languages I could name, its syntactic freedom and elasticity allows you to do whatever you want with it, and that’s why, as it has spread across the world, it has done so much. of successful local makeovers – in Irish English, West Indian English, Australian English, Indian English and the many varieties of American English. And, to the chagrin of the Guardians of Grammar, Mobb-phonics and Infamous-bonics.
But this malleability is not unique to English. David Grossman argues for Hebrew, “a flexible language” which “enthusiastically indulges in all kinds of puns. You can speak Bible slang, and you can talk about everyday life in the Bible. The same can be said of another biblical language, Greek.
Herod the Great executed no less than three sons and a wife, giving rise to the saying that it was safer to be Herod’s pig (hus) than his son (huios). But it is English, that magical, malleable and infuriating language. We had better start at the beginning and look at the language in general.
Nineteenth-century philologist Max Müller is worth quoting here: “The only great barrier between brute and man is language.
The man speaks, and no brute has ever uttered a word. Language is the Rubicon, and no brute will dare cross it. “English is fundamentally a Germanic language,” writes American linguist Arika Okrent, “and its story begins with these invading hordes.
Well, we start not with the bullies but with the barbarians. In her excellent book Highly Irregular, Ms. Okrent details, among other things, the infuriating tendencies of an otherwise magical language.
Highly Irregular could easily have been titled Highly Illogical. “Language also interacts with formal logic,” she writes, “axioms and rules of inference, but it plays by its own rules. Statements in human language can mean things in ways that logical equations do not.
But, let’s go back to the beginning. Ms. Okrent explains, “The barbarians gave us old patterns and word-forming habits that became so ingrained that the updates ignored them as the world changed around them. The French came in, dismantled the writing system, and inundated all kinds of areas with their own vocabulary and phrasing, which persisted long after they themselves switched to English.
She continues, “The printing press spread certain spelling habits, and they became so entrenched that it was too difficult to change them when pronunciation habits changed. [colonel/kernel anyone?].
Snobs made decisions about correctness based on their personal taste [passed them off as actual rules] and made us follow them making us feel insecure.
Salman Rushdie, like any self-respecting writer, is not only interested in the habits of other writers, but also in what they read.
(Much of this is just malice, in the Bajan sense.) Perhaps the most notable exception to this rule was VS Naipaul.
During an interview at the Hay-on-Wye Literary Festival, Naipaul was asked about the writers he had read. Naipaul sent the question to the border: “I am not a reader, I am a writer.
This reader (more than the writer) highly recommends Highly Irregular. Make sure to bring your maddening “whys” about English to add to Ms. Okrent’s list. As the Merovingian reminded us in Matrix Reloaded, “Why is the only true social power, without it you are powerless”.
It is always about separating the powerful from the powerless. Why is “Y” sometimes a vowel? Why are we ordering a “big” drink and not a “big” one? Why are we moving slowly but not quickly? Why is it a total sum and not a total sum? Why is there a “P” in reception, an “L” salmon and a “B” in doubt? The end of Mr. Rushdie’s essay referenced in the opening is coupled with an appropriate note on which to end.
It also serves as an apt description of Highly Irregular, “If you’re not a writer, don’t worry: this book won’t teach you how to be one.” If you are a writer I think this will teach you a lot. Either way, it’s a treasure chest and a delight.
No matter where you fall in the spectrum of reader-writers (maybe you do both), you would do well to respond to Ms. Okrent’s invitation to reflect on the magical, malleable, and infuriating language we all know. under the name of English.
Adrian Sobers is a prolific writer and commentator on social issues. This column was offered as a letter to the editor.