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A closer look at English


Consider this language and its influence on your life. Then hold your breath and wait for next week’s column

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One of the greatest impediments to international accord is the English language.

This is a strange statement from a purveyor of this language for more than seven decades.

Before you think that I am about to reinvent the wheel or attempt to hold back the tide like King Canute, put on your dancing shoes and follow me.

There is an almost unshakeable belief that anything done in English is superior. That is like saying all classical music should be written for the oboe and exclusively in E flat.

This is deeply flawed. But the unaccountable success of this flaw lies in its strategy of being packaged in a way that has been irresistible for aeons.

After all, what was colonialism but the gospel to other nations that their ways were wrong and that the English ethos would rescue them from their barbaric state?

Much of the success of this myth is founded on humour. There is the story of the cabinet minister (in England in the early years) who informed the king: “Sire, the peasants are revolting.” The king replied urbanely: “I have been aware of that for a while.”

Or the upstart cabinet minister from a minority party who offers a solution to the prime minister on the basis that it was plain and simple. After a pregnant pause, the premier responds haughtily: “But that is precisely the problem we have with it. It is plain and it is simple.”

You can’t beat these cats at their game. Double-speak, horse trading and mind control are as English as black pudding. We forget that some of the world’s leading figures couldn’t even speak the language.

Jesus didn’t speak English, neither did Muhammad, or Genghis Khan or Confucius. And what about the Greek mathematicians, and the genii from the East who still struggle to breach the shallow but impregnable wall that English has erected around them over the centuries?

Take the classic case of the bejewelled lady who says imperiously to a tramp: “Sir, you smell!” He of nimble wit replied: “No, madam, you smell. I stink!”

One has to admire the facility of the language, its daring to elevate itself above purer linguistic systems. English is a hotchpotch, a mishmash, a stew of borrowings, gleanings, thieving, appropriation, misappropriation, distortion for deceit, skills in persuasion.

This unwashed nation of cave-dwellers were at least 5000 years behind the Indians in decent living, according to Salman Rushdie. And Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian novelist, asked whether the English really believed Nigeria was waiting for them to release the country from the Dark Ages. Classic cultural effrontery.

Consider this language and its influence on your life. Then hold your breath and wait for next week’s column.