English as she spoke

English as she spoke

Strikingly original – if strange –

could be the way of our romance with

the language the British left behind,

as demonstrated before the princess

and the prince.

Prince Charles and Princess Diana must have marveled at several things their forefathers left behind them in India and must have observed how the Indians had improved upon those legacies. But the most interesting of all their experiences must have been the numerous language they heard – the numerous English languages. Again, the most unforgettable of all such experiences could have been the greetings the princess received from the editor of an Urdu newspaper at a reception at the British High Commission in New Delhi. “Your Majesty,” said the veteran, beaming bright, “I’m really flabbergasted at meeting you!” According to a report in a leading newspaper, “He was apparently extremely fond of the world, though he obviously did not know its meaning, because a few seconds later he complimented her on her looks and told her again that he was flabbergasted!”

Well, if words are not just articulations of ideas and objects and if they can be powerful incantations and cast a spell on the audience, they can also occasionally keep their utterer under a spell. Who does not have a favourite word or two for use not in their literal sense, but for their onomatopoeic or for some inexplicable personal or private value? And to use a newly acquired impressive word can be as exciting as sporting a new necktie or sprouting a moustache or exhibiting a novel hairdo. The late Mr. K.P.S. Menon recounts how a young Maharani once asked him if he had ever heard an elephant trumpet. Upon Mr. Menon replying in the negative, the Maharani said, “It is petrifying!” the amused Mr. Menon writes, “It seemed to me as if she had just found the word somewhere and was trying it out on me. She was a tender-hearted girl.” (Many Worlds).

We do not know about Princess Diana’s reaction to the tender-hearted editor’s experiment on her with the tip of his vocabulary, but we should not be surprised if Prince Charles had not even chuckled at it. It was not long ago that Prof. John Honey, a champion of the King’s English, took the would-be-king (long live the queen) to task for his utterly disloyal conduct towards the language. The prince pronounced “about the house” as “abite the hice” and “empire” as “empah”:

(By the way, isn‘t the letter ‘R’, because its sound brings to one’s mind the snarling of a dog, branded as ‘Dog’s letter’ or the ‘Snarling letter’? Ben Jonson says so and so does Shakespeare. And Robert Hendrickson reports, “In parts of America, especially in Midwest, “R’ is still called the dog letter while in other regions, particularly parts of New England and the South, it is sounded as ‘ah’.” (The Literary Life, 1981) why then find fault with the prince’s “empah”?)

A character in a fiction by Saki (H.H. Munro) says, “Hen frocks are built in Paris, but she wears them with a strong English accent.” In fact, the English wore so many things gathered from allover the world with an English accent. In return if the world wore the English language with manifold accents or it enlarged the folds, infusing unexpected meaning into some attractive words, the English should not complain as they once did.

In 1783 Mr. Webster published a word book, the precussor of his famous dictionary. He suggested that the suffixes “-tion”, “-sion” and “-scion” be pronounced as single syllables. A breathless clergyman from a remote village galloped to the prelate in the town and burst our, “Have you heard the news, mon? Do you ken (know) what’s gaen on? Here’s a book by a yankee lad called Webster, teaching thn children clean against religion!”

“How so?”

“Why, ye ken ye canna sing the psalms of David without having salvation and such words in four syllables, sal-va-si-on, and he is making all the children say salvashun!” (John S. Morgan: Noah Webster, 1975)

The scandalized clergyman’s fear that salvation was a vain aspiration unless pronounced in four syllables, found its echo in many a pious heart. Later the Victorian Age, notorious for its standardization of the middleclass mores, cultivated appropriate taboos for accents too. Pronouncing ‘at for hat’ or ‘otel for hotel’ “was an indelible sign of lowness and although this extracted no new penalties for the lower class speaker, it was an unspeakable lapse on the lips of the middleclass Victorian.” (Richard A Spears, Slang and Euphemism, 1982).

But such sanctimoniousness had to be soon sacrificed to pragmatism. The British empire was consolidating and along with that the English language was receiving rapid shots in the arm. Indeed, the English rulers have failed to put on record the services their noble language had rendered to the mundane endeavours. It was their language – with its uncanny capacity for absorbing all kinds of shocks the alien cultures would offer it, its unique and dignified humility in lending itself to new moulds of thought, was the greatest single factor behind the awe and respect they inspired in the hearts of the ruled. And the language continues to grow, even after the sun had set on the empire. How much that language can bear became proverbial when one Mr. A.W. Tuer published a book entitled “English as She is Spoke” even though the book was designed to teach English to the Portuguese: But that title fades into insignificance when compared to the following speech by an Indian leader, which the author of the work containing it assures us to be vey close to its model, the real oration:

“Ladies and gentlemen, my dear dear brothers and very very dear sisters, my friends, colleagues and my beloved sons and daughters, I will deliver my oration for the boys and girls, not for big men and big women, I mean not for the adults and adulteress. You will be wonderful to hear that I have not read very much English, but only sufficient for the enough. It is by my will power and moral courage that I I speak it. I do mistakes or sins in English, but which lady or gentleman does no mistake or sin. A month ago I was accorded a very very grand congratulation by good good men and good good women of another town – crores of them – I mean thousands and hundreds. On the leaflet they printed T for C. I became Thief Minister. I corrected. They were shameful and they printed again. This time they printed S for M. I became Chief Sinister. No time to correct. I laughed as you now. Mistake, mistake everywhere. Man is the mistake, machine is the mistake – there was the mistake in my cat which hated me. World is mistake, God is mistake… Who knew one day I will become a real Chief Minister? None but God in the sky. When I was arrested accused of seduction – or sedition, my family thought I will be massacred: Seduction – or sedition – was historic crime!”

A character is Solokno’s Don trilogy is in the habit of prefacing his blabber, “A good word is a piece of silver.” One day a button-holed listener tells him, “But silence is golden. Why don’t you exchange all your silver for gold?”

Alas, far off seems that golden day.

"Atmeeyata Gata Kali Ebam Aaji" Talk by Prof. Manoj Das

About Manoj Das

For thousands of men, women and children of the past two or three generations, Manoj Das has been the very synonym of light and delight, whose writings in Odia and English inspire in his countless readers faith in the purpose of life and also open up concealed horizons of confidence and compassion in humanity a dire need today.