English ‘as she is spoke’ and other exercises in expertise

Friday, 25 February 2022 01:57 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


STONE THE CROWS – is it only a flight of fancy that in a democracy which respects its longstanding tradition of erudite statesmen, accommodation must be made for those whose argot runs more to absurdity? 


In a 19th Century book written by little-known European author Pedro Carolino, the Queen’s English is murdered as it probably never had been before. For example, the Portuguese-English phrase-book blunders by rendering idiomatic phrases using rigid or direct translation. In its ludicrousness, “he’s crawling” is given as “he go to four feet”; “what is he doing?” becomes “what do him?”; and “I feel nauseous” gets the vapid treatment to suggest “I have a mind to do the vomit”. 

It made our Pedro a transcontinental hit – despite his hilarious failure to help Portuguese students ‘peer into the murky bubble’ of a second language. Mark Twain, that wit and master of light humour, was ironically heavy-handed in his ‘praise’ when he wrote of the absurd tome – waggishly retitled ‘English as She is Spoke’ – “nobody can add to the absurdity of this book, nobody can imitate it successfully, nobody can hope to produce its fellow; it is perfect.”

But some happy inhabitants of the blessed isle – a former colony of both Portugal and England – have joyfully undertaken the task... in the mistaken assumption that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, perhaps? And their attempts at bridging the gap between the lingo of international communication and native jargon have had their auditors in stitches. 

On the one hand, there are the bilingual basilisks who blithely observe that “the ‘kaputas’ go have hit the plane... that is the damage” – being oblivious to the inadvisability of combining business English with native avifauna if one expects to be taken seriously. 

On the other, there are the perverse polyglots in political opposition who would elevate the same sentiment about crows and aircraft to the more exalted plain of “certain avian specimens of the genus Corvus have arrogated the role of intercepting the trajectory of passenger aircraft along an egregiously dangerous vector that would inevitably end in disaster for both participants in the airborne encounter”. Or, as in the meme, substitute ‘aerocrafts’ for ‘passenger aircraft’. 

The memes have a certain genius that is endemic to Sri Lanka. If memes were foreign-exchange earners, this tropical island would be oh, such a forex paradise and our future far more secure! As it is, they’re comic relief. And welcome medicine for a body politic reeling from sundry commodity and essential shortages, crippling power cuts and stratospheric cost-of-living – with the worst of it possibly yet to come...


The mind to vomit

As it is though, when the belly laughter has rumbled and died away to a gastrointestinal gurgle, the ground reality reveals itself to be of a gristly nature that is not readily digested.

For one, a lack of finesse in arguably the world’s most important or influential of languages can be forgiven or forgotten – if it’s simply a matter of form. But when the personage’s substance lacks a certain gravitas, things are bound to take a more serious turn. Is this the mind that launched a thousand argosies of magic sails and burned the topless towers of the IMF?

For another, the public official presently under the ‘meme microscope’ is no great shakes in his mother tongue either, when he’s pontificating on the paltry taxability of the private sector. 

In a host of recent interviews, he gives the impression of being equally lacking in a certain je ne sais quoi as regards the island’s state language as much as the state of the economy. 

So much so that one has to wonder if he’s not simply the by-product of nepotism and crony politics – rather than an exemplar of a ‘savant with seven brains’ (as the sycophantic propaganda would have it). 

In fact, the wags on social media could not leave that urban legend alone as well... wondering wittily if the reference to ‘mola hatha’ was merely a sum total of ‘seven brain cells’? 

And last but by no means least, in whichever language our erudite governors of today’s dispensation speak, their ideas about the world of finance and fiscal prudence – as much as their plans for the local economy, and its expedient rescue from the doldrums – beg many questions. 

Do they have at least a basic grasp of macroeconomics? (‘He go to four feet’ isn’t good enough when we’re all crawling from the checkout counter to the rapidly emptying larder.) 

Are they in touch with international norms and trends, and do they understand the ramifications of the same for the local economy? (‘What do him?’ indeed – only slightly less frightening a prospect than the hoary question ‘Who is he?’) 

Will native wit and the myopia of an amnesiac polity trump the criterion of competence in the subject ministry assigned to one as a boon of familial largesse? (‘I have a mind to do the vomit.’)


Faux pas

Does it hurt, dears? What’s that... only when you laugh? Well, hold your horses – the laugh’s on you!

First, a majority (literally) of us have not yet realised that our fawning over two-bit politicos and their potty ideologies does not produce the sea-green incorruptible leaders needed to salvage our national pride, reputation and prospects. 

Then, a cowardly skulking minority with no recourse to critical engagement (they may think) – except posting or sharing or forwarding a meme – has only the courage to endure what cannot easily be changed... now that the rot has set in and the muck congealed around our political culture’s muddy sereppus.

And, in the vain hope that ‘sooner or later, something will change’, we all continue to tolerate – often with ill grace – the traditions of corruption, cronyism and nepotism that have brought us to the present handiya.

At least, if substance had trumped form and the politikka in question had a cogent fiscal policy that would introduce much needed vision, discipline and vitality into a lacklustre economic regimen, no one would be more than mildly amused by those dastardly memes. 

But as it is, we’re looking into the abyss – and all our would-be political and national saviours have to offer is ideas that a Grade Five economics student wouldn’t touch with a pol katu henda. 

As for that other practitioner of Shakespearean eloquence that often out-bards the Bard, it is high time that his lofty speech landed fairly and squarely on terra firma – because the ground realities no longer (if they ever did) permit the political opposition to hover in the upper atmosphere like some loquacious lama blessed with highfaluting solutions that are not practicable. 

Will the finance minister and the honourable gentleman who features opposite him in many a witty or wicked meme these days be allowed to get away with it for much longer? Or are they going to be held accountable by not merely social media but their respective parties and polities and pethsang-kaarayas? 

And will they – in the immortal words of a particularly apposite translation in that phrase-book above – be able to say, “I know well who I have to make” (‘I know very well what I have to do and what my responsibilities are’)? 

How about thee? Would you be able to pass the acid test of telling fakes apart from financial brains or faux savants from the real thing? Take these to see!


The Acid Tests

1. ESSAY. In a democracy, everyone is entitled to their level of incompetence – if a majority permits the ascendancy to high office of individuals least suited to their role but most appealing to the prevailing political culture. Explore. Or preferably, explode. 



A. A Finance Minister must know his onions – whether in a thin soup or a fine pickle. Can you just taste it? (‘I have a mind to do the vomit’ will not count for more than half-marks in a half-baked political economy...)

B. Who has the better vocabulary – Sajith or Shakespeare? Why do you say so, or ‘Wherefore art thou Romeo?’ (Don’t answer the latter part of the set question.)


3. MCQ...

i. The primary function of a Finance Minister is ___ (fly by wire, fly by the seat of one’s pants, explain convincingly how and why pigs might fly.)

ii. When one is in Opposition, one must never ___ (court disaster, quote disastrously.) 

iii. Sri Lanka’s native bird is ___ (kaputas, flying pigs, ‘rice flies very arithmetic’.) 



a. A first language is the language in which a politician can first rise to his level of incompetence. (T/F) 

b. One’s mother tongue is when another’s parentage is questioned when one’s interlocutor is in a state of anguish at the state of the economy. (T/F)

c. The best assignment of languages in our political economy is: English as the state language; Sinhala as a link language – as so many islanders use it every day everywhere, to connect practically to others; and Mandarin as the argot of the future. (T/F)

d. “‘Kaputas’ go have hit the plane” is a metaphor for the state of the nation. (T/F)


5. FILL IN THE BLANKS (pick from the options in parentheses) 

1. “I know the ___ (law/lore/low) is an ass,” is probably what the minister muttered as he walked away scot-free from a panoply of cases against him in a plethora of financial scandals.

2. It is the ___ (end/beginning of the end/giddy limit/I don’t know) when a polity believes its elected representatives’ blatantly self-serving propaganda.

One last thing... Bet many of us are born snobs who like a good laugh at someone else’s bad manners or country bumpkin linguistics faux pas. I beg to submit that there is more at stake here than doing the Queen to death – It’s the economy, stupid! High time some folk who are competent at best and cleverer than most of the rest of us to assume the mantle of rescue, recover and revitalise a sorry scarecrow on which even the kaputas hesitate to perch.  

Ex-Journalist | Editor-at-Large of LMD | English-language lover


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