Witty, but an exercise of little value?
A Dictionary of Sri Lankan English, by Michael Meyler.
As I settled down to flick through Michael Meyler’s ‘A Dictionary of Sri Lankan English’, I recalled the old adage: “the sun never set on the British Empire because God would not trust an Englishman in the dark”.
That might seem an unkind a thought to harbour against Mr. Meyler, who comes across as the archetypical Englishman littered through the pages of literature and history; that enchanting breed of men who boldly circled the globe obsessively collecting and collating bits and bobs of everything from fossils in Patagonia to bird life in the Kurdish marshes. An intense and self-effacing subspecies that appears to derive meaning from life by meticulous note-taking and careful filing of minutiae in the backwaters of beyond, all too easily consigned to the backwaters until they are discovered.
Take the case of Mr. Meyler’s compatriot who spent several decades observing and noting the numbers and behaviour of some species of butterflies in South England. That corpus, for years dismissed as an eccentric’s hobby, now provides a trawl of evidence for scientists on the impact of climate change on the biosphere. If you have an affinity towards O’Brian or Le Carre, it is not difficult to spy shades of a constant gardener or ship surgeon.
It is hard to accuse Mr. Meyler of unseeming haste considering the prolix 20 years he has taken over this book. However several objections to Mr. Meyler’s project spring to mind.
Firstly, there is the issue of this idea of these various English speaking peoples. It is really a political idea rather than the linguistic one. Is there a difference? Yes, in the sense that there exists a number of literate users wishing to promote and legitimise, or at least define its existence in a special way and elevate its essential provincialism. Black American English spoken in the ‘hood’ has seen a vibrant and explosive growth of the English language. However, in the absence of literati with the means to legitimise its formal existence the slang of the hood remains the slang of the hood, and makes its way into common usage by way of lyrics and film. How come we hear not about Welsh English (they are all Indians in disguise anyway), Irish, Scottish English?
In fact slang is a subversive evolution of the language. At its best it has wit, imagination and artistry. The metaphysical poets’ mad wrestling with disparate ideas is not very different from the layers of connotation from which cockney rhyming slang draws meaning. The slang of the higher classes has a better chance of survival. In fact, it passes under the more respectable nomenclature of word-coinage.
For instance, ‘collateral damage’, ‘sound bite’ and ‘spin doctor’ are slang, in the same way a ‘hurrah boat’ is a pleasure cruiser and a ‘calorific mama’ is a young woman of particularly high sexual attraction. In that sense Sri Lankan English is to my mind wholly insipid. It does not create or evolve language in a deliberate manner. It can seldom, if ever, convey a commonly accepted meaning or experience with new clarity or adroitness. Dr. Dushyanti Mendis introducing the book at the launch (in one of the most elegantly crafted over-the-shoulder speeches this writer has heard in a long time) almost hastened to add that Sri Lankans do abandon Sri Lankan English in formal speech. Almost conceding, I suspect, that this creation took place on the wrong side of the bed. Its antecedents instead lie in lazy expression, plain ignorance and outdated colonial slang. Hence in dressing up this bat (slang for a night woman that flits from one trick to the next) as a calorific mama one feels is legitimising the usage of sloppy language.
Through their respective dictionaries, Johnson and Webster formalized an existing word-stock that was already used in a complex and sophisticated discourse. Which begs the question, what discourse takes place in Sri Lankan English to really elevate it thus?
We do not, for instance, use any Sri Lankan English in our politics for instance …. Apart from referring to one’s foes as “against karayo”.
The net value of Sri Lankan English is debatable and most people would think it is linked to the Sri Lanka rupee and has been falling steadily since the ’60s. And if that is the case then radio DJs are surely the central bankers of language. Which is not to devalue Mr Meyler's work. After all Pluto is no longer a planet but sky watchers still watch it. And Meyler does invest the book with his own quite personal charm. He has picked up an impressive variety of Sri Lankanisms. Take ‘catcher’ for instance, an indispensable part of Sri Lankan urban life. Do you get ‘catchers’ in other parts of the world.... if so I wonder if they have that particularly Sri Lankan air of slight insouciance and the element of disapproval which Meyler rightly captures.
There are, of course, too many Sinhala words. Govigama for instance – yes, we all known it is a caste but the cognoscenti of caste will invariably and discreetly locate chaps for being army (govigama) navy (karave) or air force (durawe) or smugly inquire whether so and so is Carrington or Washington. Perhaps Meyler is innocent of this nastier but pervasive part of Sri Lanka English. One also wonders what is particularly Sri Lankan about words such as electorate, rag or fillip to justify their inclusion. Or bafflement as to why elocution class is Sri Lankan. I recall some Muriel Spark short story where a respectable girl without means earned a living giving elocution classes (it wasn’t a euphemism), and can’t help thinking Meyler tends to sit in the wings as a slightly patronising arbitrator benchmarking Sri Lankanisms against a British Standard English (BSE) most familiar to him. And if you’re fussy about taxonomy you might well fuss at his definition of polecat which is really a Civet (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus hermaphroditus for the truly nitpicky). But who can possibly fault him on his fabulous range of reference? And that really is the charm and strength of his achievement -- 14 references for Polecat alone.
And he is admirably sensitive to subtle shifts of meaning. The word shrewd for instance in BSE, as he calls it, suggests a clear head for calculated risk, whereas Sri Lankans invariably use it as “crafty, cunning and scheming” as he puts it. Then there are the genuine bits of illumination like body-parts and face-cut. Sri Lankan use of the word slowly is a gem. … “to slowly tell” meaning “to quietly tell”. One of Meyler’s tangential achievements is that Mirisgala gives a very good insight about Sri Lanka.