Published:  07:32 PM, 28 July 2020

The twists and turns in English

The twists and turns in English
 
There are people who will cheerfully tell you that English is a dynamic language. You can't disagree with that statement, for English is indeed a language in relentless movement. But what does worry us these days is the way in which the language is being misused or pushed into areas we are not comfortable with.

You may have noticed that a lot of people these days use the word 'anyways' when the proper term is 'anyway'. Why do they do that? People who study the English language will inform you that it is all an effect of what Americans have been doing to it. In other words, Americanisms have been doing quite some damage to English in the recent past. How else would you explain the fact that too many young people, even in Bangladesh, cannot converse in English without using 'like' a number of times in a sentence? By the time they finish a sentence, you realize that it has all been a murderous exercise in grammar.

Yes, English is in many ways a mangled form of expression in our times. Think of the sentence, 'The President arrived in the French capital Tuesday'. Note that the preposition 'on' has vanished. And when you tune in to such channels as CNN, you will likely hear its anchors use the phrase 'take a listen'. How does one do that? You either listen or you don't. But take a listen? One other Americanism, in Trumpian times and made notable by one of the President's advisers, is 'alternative fact'. In other words, that is nothing but another term for a lie, though Kellyanne Conway --- she is the adviser --- will not agree. And then there are the pretty irritating 'gonna', 'wanna' and what have you. There is 'gotten'; and there is 'proven fact'.

Americanisms apart, there are changes in the language that are everyday flung in our faces in an intimidating sort of way. Where once we had a quote, today we are told it is a 'soundbite'. What sound? And what bite? There is 'fake news' too. Well, news can be true or may turn out to be wrong, but why must we use 'fake news'? News cannot be adulterated, like so many other items in the market. But there we are, irritated by this phrase. And, yes, the development of technology has thrown up such new turns of phrase as 'text me' and 'sms me', which is as much as saying that while digital progress has gone up by leaps and bounds, English has been left rather pauperized. We do not throw things into bins nowadays, but 'bin them'. Notice how a noun has conveniently been turned into a verb? Here's another bit of new English for you: 'Let's party'. Whatever is wrong with 'let's have a party'?

There are some beautiful words we have lost to the changing course of linguistic winds over the years. 'Gay' once denoted happiness and good cheer. Today, if you inform your friends that your girlfriend is a gay person, you will have every pair of eyes in the room looking at you in disbelief, perhaps in disgust. Your meaning of the word does not tally with theirs, see? And then there are such terms as 'selfie', the application of which is so much of a bother these days. Time was when we thought birds twittered, but now there is something called 'twitter' and people, like all those birds in the woods, go on 'tweeting' day and night.

We don't ask people for a response to a write-up, for we really wait for a 'feedback' from them. I am not being 'lazy' today; I am just 'laid back'. And then there are the phrases you are instructed to take seriously. 'Think positive', you are told. With so many problems around you, with so many worries, how do you 'think positive'? That would be escapism of a kind. 'Inbox me', you tell your friend. We should think 'out of the box'. See how our use of English is going through a steep curve, for better or worse? And why should you be in a box to be able to think out of it?

Language ought not to box us in, but in many ways it does precisely that these days. In essays, we have 'bullet points'. Why use such an incendiary word as 'bullets' to refer to as intellectual an exercise as an essay? And have you noticed how lecturers or speakers in classrooms or at seminars save themselves the trouble of exhaustive explanations of subjects by relying on 'power points'? There are many among us who look upon such exercises as signs of smartness, but are they that really? You must be 'kidding me'. Now, there's another Americanism for you. Why can't you simply say, 'You can't be serious' instead of 'You are kidding me'?

The English language --- and let us move away from its present placement in our lives --- has always had a colourful past, most recently in the times between our boyhood and graduation to adulthood. In the restive 1960s, the Chinese media consistently referred to supporters of American policy in South-East Asia as 'running dogs of US imperialism'. In their turn, Americans kept referring to Mao's China as 'Red China' and went quite some way in propagating the phrase, 'Better dead than Red'. Ronald Reagan, not very intellectually endowed, denigrated the Soviet Union as an 'Evil Empire'.

The term 'yellow peril' was in the early phases of the twentieth century a description of Oriental people in the West and a general reference to China and imperial Japan. We do not refer to 'Red Indians' but to 'Native Americans' these days. Negroes are African-Americans. In the South Asian subcontinent, we experienced, and experience even now, the clout of the 'brown sahibs'. We have regularly insulted --- and still do --- birds and pigs, among others of God's creatures. We refer to someone as 'pigheaded' and describe someone else as a 'bird brain'. The Hutus thought Tutsis in Rwanda, before they went for the killings, were 'cockroaches.'

So there we are. How do you feel after all this exercise? Please don't tell me, 'I am good'. It does not make grammatical sense. Simply go back to the more appropriate 'I am well.'

The writer is Editor -in-Charge, The Asian Age.




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