23 April 2015

Humour: the final frontier in language competency?

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the importance of learning English, not just because it is a useful tool, but it is moreover an important element in recovering self, identity and dignity from the circumstances of coloniality we find ourselves in.  Among the many responses to that piece was this hilarious and at the same time thought-provoking anecdote from my friend Ramzeen Azeez:

There's another aspect, regarding English which was brought home to me with a bang. This was during my years as a Technician in the airport and Dayanthe Athulathmudali was our Exec Director. It was our AGM and my name was proposed as Hony. Secretary and as is usual, I tried every excuse in the book to squirm out of it. But the guys insisted cajoled me with such statements like "oka ganin bung, api full support eka denawa" etc. I succumbed to this carrot and my predecessor was relieved: both physically and mentally.

‘During the post-AGM get-together where the usual free-flow of liquor loosened tongues, a colleague came up to me and said, "machan, umbata secretary post eka dunnay, apita weday beri nisa nemei. Oka dunnay apey ingreesi durwala nisath nemei. Dekak dammata passay umbata wada hondin katha karanna puluwan. Namuth umbata thanathura dunnay (here comes the punch line), apita ingreesiyen vihilu karanna beri nisai.

‘I was enlightened and lights flashed in the old grey matter: English speaking not only entails proper use of the language but encompasses also its humor. Are you similarly enlightened?’

Here’s the translation: ‘We didn’t give you the Secretary’s post because we were not suitable.  Nor was it that our English was poor.  In fact after two shots we would talk much better than you ever could.  We gave you this post because we are unable to joke in English.’

This threw me.  I never thought of English in this way.  I am not sure if those who use English as a kaduwa (sword) or a token of elite positioning wave the ‘humour-flag’ as those they want to put down or say to themselves, ‘well, he can’t joke in English, so there!’ to feel better.  I don’t think the views of those who see English as a class marker are that important as long as the corresponding ‘lack’ on the part of those for whom English is a unshackling instrument do not see it as such.  Chances are that the Anglicized for whom ‘Enlished’ humour is a fall back dignity-salvaging devise are pretty much out of the relevant equation pertaining to cultural and ‘cultured’ positioning. 

In a sense, our Englished lot as they lose ground and political and economic clout to the so-called yakkos can be expected to throw at them one efficiency-bar after another.  It would go this way, I believe.  First the question, ‘can you understand English?’  When that e-bar has been surmounted, they will ask ‘can you speak English?’  And then, ‘ok, so you can understand and talk, but can you read and write?’  Once those degrees have been secured, they throw the p-bar, the ‘pronunciation-bar’. Supposing even this passed, i.e. you no longer confuse the ‘pa’ sound with the ‘fa’ and can figure the correct vowel sound when the letter ‘o’ appears whatever the word.  That’s when the final test is given: ‘go ahead, joke in English!’ 

How should we respond to such e-bars?  One way would be to say ‘go to hell’.  Or, as I used to advise my ‘yakko’ friends who would be stumped by the snooty Englished, ask them to spell ‘bourgeoisie’ or ‘lingerie’.  I know, I know, these are not strictly English words, but the ‘Englished’ would be sufficiently chastened to know that a yakko can spell their condition and wardrobe when they cannot.  It cures some, not all and some, we must understand are incurable. 

And also, what is ‘strictly English’?  There are no true ‘language standards’ except the privileging that is part and parcel of a pernicious kind of cultural politics.  The only e-bars in these things that anyone should face are those set by self.  But for this to work there are conditions.  First of all, self-esteem.  One has to be comfortable with overall body-shape of mind and heart.  There has to be humility.  One has to understand that not all things are knowable, not all skills are learnable in a single lifetime.  One has to reconcile to the fact that in acquiring a basket of skills in varying degrees one has to forego other things.  The Englished may have the accent and the humour, but they might have character flaws that make these ‘endowments’ seem ridiculous. 

Does it mean that we should not learn to pun in English? Of course not.  It is not a ‘must’, but most certainly a useful appendage to have.  It is not, however, a ‘core’ attribute for decent living or principled engagement in society.  Good to joke around, but this is no laughing matter.  In the end, it is not the garments and accessories that define us, but our actions and the values and principles that guide them. 

English?  Nice language.  Good to learn. The journey through sansara is not necessarily shorter for the ‘Englished’.  The ‘Englished’, to put it another way, are not judged more generously by their ‘Maker’ in the hereafter.  But, to the extent that life on earth should be as free of hassle and anxiety as possible, there are certain skills that are useful.  English is not No. 1 in the list. Neither is it No. 10393472.  It’s up to the individual in the end. 

My late mother used to tell me that when someone jokes around, the world laughs with him/her, but if that’s all you do, the world laughs at him/her.  The last laugh will reside with the person who can see and be beyond language and language politics, I think.

This article was first published in the 'Daily News,' April 21, 2010.