Colombo, Language

A public apology to Michael Meyler

Michael Meyler is an innocent Britisher going about being innocent with respect to language and language politics, he would have us believe.  He is good hearted and generous.  This is why, we are made to understand, he writes an article titled ‘Sri Lankan English: the state of the debate’, where he says (generously) ‘the level of debate on the issue in the public forum remains simplistic’.  As such, he ‘welcomed’ (his words, not mine) my response (‘Sri Lankan English: another snooty English speakers’ project?’) in his subsequent response, ‘A snooty English speaker’s reply’, where he says (yes, Meyler’s descriptive, not mine) that I have presented my case ‘forcefully’ and that ‘it can only be a good thing for the state of the debate’.   I am sorry.

In his response, Meyler confesses that he is on ‘dangerous ground’, being a non-Sri Lankan English speaker and a citizen of a former colonial power. He admits that he is a prime example of a ‘Snooty English speaker’ and admits that the point I made is valid (this is Meyler speaking, let me emphasize, and not Malinda).  I am sorry.

Meyler says (yes, Meyler and not Malinda) that he is a compiler of a ‘dictionary’ of Sri Lankan English then interjects ‘it is not really a dictionary’.  Meyler says (yes, Meyler and not Malinda) that he uses the term ‘World Englishes’ in the context of legitimizing Sri Lanka English as ‘one of those Englishes’ and goes on to say he is not comfortable with the term.  I am sorry.

Meyler, in his latest missive to the Sunday Observer (‘Reply to Malinda’s Article’, July 4, 2010), says he is an English teacher by profession (doesn’t make him a specialist on the subject we are talking about or on the relevant politics) and that he indulges his fascination with Sri Lankan English on his own time.  He is making us understand, I think, that he is no expert. Here’s the full confession:  ‘For the record, I am neither an academic nor a consultant; no one invited me to write about Sri Lankan English, and no one is paying me to do so. I work for the British Council as an hourly-paid language teacher, but the time I spend on Sri Lankan English is entirely my own.’ I am sorry.

True to form he contradicts himself.  He says ‘experts have endorsed my book’ (that makes him expert, he thinks?).   Meyler should make up his mind on a lot of things. He can’t be a self-effacing penitent and the Grand Abbot at the same time.  I am no expert, but if I didn’t write a dictionary, I wouldn’t call it one and I would think that anyone who doesn’t know the meaning of the word ‘dictionary’ should not be teaching English, forget about writing books on the subject! I am sorry.

Meyler is, a word, then, a dabbler.  And if this dabbler can cast opinion, I too have that right, more so than he does because we are talking about Sri Lankan English and because there’s something being advocated for Sri Lankans. I am a Sri Lankan. I may be wrong, but I think I ought to have more say in matters Sri Lankan than a Brit, surely?  I am sorry.

This non-academic dismisses Dilshan Boange’s intervention as being one which contributes little to the subject, based on a single sentence.  He states that apart from Boange, ‘the debate’ from the ‘opposite camp’ (he is squarely stating that he is in a camp, or that he is The Camp and therefore he is, contrary to claim, engaged in a crusade of some sort) consists nothing more than articles written by me in different newspapers. I am sorry, has he not seen the very pithy contribution of Rajpal Abeynayake (in the Sunday Lakbima News), which, while not exactly endorsing my position, does take issue with the kinds of language-strutting that the likes of Meyler engages in?

Meyler wants this to be a conversation among ‘the enlightened’. So I suppose he can dismiss Rajpal, Boange and myself as being ‘dabblers’ (like himself, by confession; Meyler’s confession and not my assertion, by the way), but I wonder if he has read a two-part piece on Sri Lankan English in the Daily News written by Methsiri Cooray (lawyer and accountant) and if he considers Cooray an ‘expert’.  Meyler is peeved that the Observer reproduced his ‘groundviews’ article without due acknowledgment.  The Observer, carrying his reply, has noted that the said article was sent them by one Sunimal Fernando, who is overseeing the entire ‘English Our Way’ project.  Now Sunimal Fernando would not be forwarding anyone’s objections to something I (or anyone else) wrote on Sri Lankan English which took issue with ‘English Our Way’ unless he endorses that person’s view, in this case Meyler’s.  Meyler is not responsible for Sunimal’s expert-assessments of course.  I am sorry.  But would Meyler be kind enough to tell us whether he considers Sunimal Fernando ‘an expert’ on the subject and if so, would Meyler substantiate such an assertion with tangible proof?

Meyler is upset that I used the F-word. Well, ‘F plus three asterisks’ which fools no one.  Is Meyler saying that the F-word is not standard Sri Lankan or standard British English or that it is?  Sure, there’s an etiquette issue here but then again that’s all about skin-depth isn’t it?  I am sure Meyler has seen Osho’s hilarious take on the F-word and its versatility.  It is, pardon my English, f****** amazing!  But I will apologize. Sorry, Michael, I thought you were made of sterner stuff.  I am sorry.

The above would indicate that Meyler is rather confused.  He missed my point entirely. I am not denying that there are all kinds of Englishes and I never said that Sri Lankan English(es) should be rubbished.  All I did was to flag certain issues pertaining to the cultural politics of language and language instruction.  Let me reiterate.  First, those who advocate Sri Lankan English are for the most part very well versed in other English(es) that are considered in certain fora as being ‘standard’.  I am sorry, while it is nice and patriotic and warm and all that to champion our very own, home-grown, home-bred, ‘nativized’ form of English, the current fascination with it carries the danger of slipping to a point where Anything-Goes English(es) are taught and the taught being made to understand that acquiring such language competency is adequate and equivalent to learning any other kind of English.

Meyler puts it all in perspective in his initial response/confession: ‘A true €œdictionary” of Sri Lankan English would also include all the words and expressions which are common to every variety of English (cat, love, biscuit, whatever), and the distinctively Sri Lankan bits would suddenly become an insignificant part of the whole.’ What then is the big deal in ‘Sri Lankan English’?  I made this point in my response, but Meyler has kept mum on it.  I also asked, ‘Why does he not in the very least be true to the language politics he champions by using the ‘English’ that he is trying to codify for us (poor natives) in the manner of the happy and benevolent colonial, the converter of heathen?’ Meyler dodged.   I am sorry.

Meyler claims that he is no one’s agent. Thank you, I didn’t know.  I hope Sunimal Fernando will take note and not promote Meyler, a self-confessed dabbler, as ‘expert’ and pass his by-my-admission amateurish (and confused, may I add, Michael?) scribbling as though it’s the Last Word on the subject.  I hope that Sunimal Fernando or anyone else in the ‘English Our Way’ business would instead care to respond to the issues I have raised.  I am sorry Michael, that’s not about you.

Meyler says that he is not on a crusade.  Why then does he broach the subject?  He acts as though he is innocent, but uses ideologically-charged and clearly political terminology, speaking of camps for example. He bemoans the lack of debate and thinks it appropriate to initiate one.   He finds it problematic (by admission) that a citizen of a former colonial power advocates to the colonized, but then ‘rises to the occasion’ and says ‘I have a right, damn it!’  I said ‘you are enjoying our hospitality’ and he responds quite rightly ‘the Seneviratnes didn’t invite me for a meal’.  The man doesn’t understand metaphor and this make me question his ability to teach.  I am sorry.

Meyler calls me a racist. Why? Because I use his words (his ‘dangerous ground’ confession and his clear admission that he has invested in the ‘Sri Lanka English(ing) Project) to show that he is part-player in a colonialist project of defining for us the reality we inhabit and advocating for us a reality that we ought to inhabit.  He clearly seems to have missed this point. Instead he gets all uppity about it and calls me a racist.  I am sorry.

Meyler says I am upset because he is a ‘suddha’ (his word, not mine).  Well until such time Meyler’s Government compensates us for all the looting, the cultural genocide, rape of forest, killing of elephants and massacre of thousands and thousands of people, I will have a problem with the British, thank you very much. That’s not the Big Issue here. My issue is the anti-intellectualism that Meyler is spreading around and the unexplained footnoting or even absenting of the relevant cultural politics in his posturing.  I am sorry.

Finally, Meyler is of the view that I am incoherent.  His opinion. I respect that.  Well, if that is the case, i.e. I am a confused kettle, then the above will show that he is an incoherent pot.  I am not sure he would get that, given his abysmal ability to appreciate nuance in language (and related politics, may I add?).  I rant, he claims, but then again I can’t detect much sobriety in Michael’s response. Maybe he doesn’t understand ‘rant’ either.  If I was incoherent, why respond at all?  And why salute my interjections as being ‘useful’?  I am sorry.

No Michael, no personal grudge. You think I am a racist, a bigot.  Your opinion.  You are welcome to it.  But I think you should go to your expert friends with all that you’ve written on the subject in the Observer and in Groundviews and get an opinion.  Maybe you’ll learn something.  The meaning of words such as ‘confused’ and ‘contradiction’, for example.  Better yet, ask someone like Arjuna Parakrama.  He doesn’t like my politics and he wrote a doctoral dissertation on de-hegemonizing language standards. Ask Pradeep Jeganathan, again someone who doesn’t exactly see eye-to-eye on a lot of things.  He is an accomplished writer and multi-lingual (equally proficient in Sinhala and Tamil).  Neither of them is given to the kind of mutual back-scratching that goes on in ‘Englishing Circles’ in Sri Lanka.  I am sorry, Michael, I don’t know how to contact Arjuna but I have Pradeep’s contact info.

I have nothing more to say to or about Michael Meyler, I am sorry, but would welcome an open debate with Sunimal Fernando at any forum of his choice. Anytime. After all, he’s the man in charge and he, more than anyone else should know that there’s something really weird when a project titled ‘English OUR Way’ is being ‘minded’ by Indians and relevant training is being done in India.  Now if it was called ‘English: Indian Way’, that would be more honest.

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer who can be reached at [email protected]

  • Michael

    Why does is the article say “by Groundviews”?

    (Different Michael here, not Meyler.)

  • Pearl Thevanayagam

    When i saw the byline Groundviews I thought it is an alias for Malinda Seneviratne. I hope I am mistaken.

    • Apologies, we had forgotten the author field when posting. This is in fact penned by Malinda Seneviratne, and also appear in today’s Sunday Observer.

  • RD

    “Well until such time Meyler’s Government compensates us for all the looting, the cultural genocide, rape of forest, killing of elephants and massacre of thousands and thousands of people, I will have a problem with the British, thank you very much.”

    With apologies for butting in here in this highly intellectual debate that is so very important but, if that isn’t a clear example of racism in action then I don’t know what is.

  • ameen

    Im confused:

    1. Why did Groundviews not detect this mistake and correct it earlier? At least
    after the 1st reader had queried it? Clearly an hour had elapsed between then and the 2nd reader making the same comment.

    2. Did Meyler not show his aversion for the Sunday Observer/Daily News and request that these news organs be left out of this debate?

    • Much as we would like to, we are not glued to our computers all the time – hence the lag between comment submission, approval and any required action that is taken on the site. We trust this addresses your confusion on this score, and also urge you to re-read Meyler’s submission more carefully with regard to your second point.

  • Pearl Thevanayagam

    Sorry Groundviews I was nit-picking. But I laud you for being championing freedom of expression.

    I am no apologist for MM but all this invective against MM whose only sin is trying to teach English to Sri Lankans in his capacity as promoting English at the British Council. An English teacher who declares he is only an English teacher and not an academic only proves his humility. Although being an English teacher for 20 years and being British far supercedes those with degrees who still would not be a patch on MM.

    Malinda Seneviratne is quite versatile in expressing himself in Englilsh but he has this hang-up not unlike Rajpal Wijenaike about the British and although they are not directly affected by colonialism still will not let go of prejudices against the British while bending backwards to express themselves in English.

    Were it not for the British Council we would not be getting excellent books at no cost. Ditto for USIS. MM should not be held responsible for whatever is wrong with our state of English education.

    Why not appreciate the efforts of MM in assimilating Sri Lankan English so that one day this category could be included in the OED? This would be a feather in our cap. Don’t you think so Malinda.

    There are a number of activities BC conducts for Sri Lankans in th form of drama workshops Cambridge exams for external students etc so that when we are out in the wider world we could

  • Pearl Thevanayagam

    I lost the thread there. Apologies about Rajpal’s surname. It should read Abeynaike.

    Continued……

    There are a number of activities BC conducts for Sri Lankans in the form of drama workshops, Cambridge exams for external students etc so that when we are out in the wider world we could hold our own and Sri Lankans abroad are aprreciated for being well-versed in English and they hold important positions thanks to a sound English education.

    Having said that the world is evolving. It is in the spirit of innovation and novel thinking that languages transcends race, caste and ethnic divide.

    Indians have honed this into fine art. While not forfeiting Indian identity the Indian diaspora blend so well into the British. It is to their credit that Walkers Crisps, an authentic British potato crisp manufaturer, now have hot chilli in their flavour. Pure ingenuity. How bad is that?

  • Wow! Malinda has now invited Michael to his “bring your sugar along” Tea Party. Wonder if Alice Akka will be there too. I know for sure that Sunimal The Hatter wont. Im in wonderland trying to figure out how this party is going to end.More to the point, Im beginning to wonder whether we really need to speak Lewis Carrol’s language with our own twist and even codify it so. I think, we lankans are drunk.

  • longus

    Malintha

    Why should we be involved in how English be taught in Sri Lanka? Let it be a way you communicate with people who don’t speak Sinhala or Tamil. It is a well known thing in the English speaking Western countries that the immigrants speak their version of English and nobody finds fault with it.

    Let this Sudda teach his mother tongue the way he wants. Why should we be worried that the “standard” of English would go down? We’d do better if we pay the same attention in preserving our mother tongue(s).We are no guardians of the Sudda’s language.

    The things that Malinda saya about British colonialism in Sri Lanka are true to the word. How can you call it racism? Britian can expect this kind of responses from the ex-colonies even after 500 years of independence from colonialism! They are yet to pay the price for centuries of repression,looting and murder.

  • Idealist?

    “Britisher”??? Surely a fine example of Sri Lankan (or South Asian) English!

  • SomewhatDisgusted

    Longus,

    RE: “How can you call it racism? Britian can expect this kind of responses from the ex-colonies even after 500 years of independence from colonialism!”

    Should the Tamils hate the Sinhalese on a blanket generalization for all of eternity, because the Sinhalese burnt innocent Tamils out of their houses? Should the Sinhalese do the same to the Tamils?

    The Brits of the colonial era are dead and gone (or decrepit and doddery). Are you planning to hold the unborn hostage to their crimes as well? Who exactly are you blaming? All Brits? Some Brits? Michael Meyler? The blind? The bed-ridden? Is there an end in sight to this?

    Bad things happened in history. Best we get used to it and move on, lest we remain stuck in our past, being racist towards perfectly innocent people.

  • Doubtful

    Malinda, I can speak for more than myself when i say this: we need to believe that you have better things to do that pen lengthy rebuttals to Michael.
    Michael, please don’t waste your time and ours rebutting to Malinda. Your work itself is very interesting, but the dialogue with Malinda is not.

  • longus

    somewhatDisgusted

    Why don’t you apply your own argument to Tamils as well. Why do the Tamils always repeat about ’56,’58,’77,and ’83 riots. These things happed a long time ago,”no”? Whom are you accusing now as most of the perpetraters of those events are dead and gone now? Where is the end of this if you go on accusing like this?

    Bad things happened in the history.Best we get used to it and move on…….

  • indonicus

    There is a word in coloquial Sinhalese for this Malinda’s inane posturing. Its called “boru hila”.

  • SD

    Dear Longus,

    RE: “Why don’t you apply your own argument to Tamils as well. Why do the Tamils always repeat about ’56,’58,’77,and ’83 riots.,…

    Bad things happened in the history.Best we get used to it and move on…….”

    Well I couldn’t agree more. Too many people are stuck in the past without looking for ways to move forward and you are a prime example of that kind of thinking. There are certainly more than enough Tamils who despise all Sinhalese on some blanket generalization, just as there are people like you who despise both Tamils (and the British too it would now appear), on similar grounds. I think such thinking is part of the problem Longus, certainly not part of the solution.

  • dingiri

    ……..”Well until such time Meyler’s Government compensates us for all the looting, the cultural genocide, rape of forest, killing of elephants and massacre of thousands and thousands of people, I will have a problem with the British, thank you very much.”

    — Perhaps the compensation came in the form of the Victoria Dam, The many highway projects, the post Tsunami bale out of the Lankan economy, GSP+ etc. etc.

    — Perhaps the massacre of thousands and thousands of people 200 years ago was carried out in the name of defeating terrorism where all means are justified. Remember, a non-state actor had taken on the state in violent insurrection in 1818? And the British OWNED us then just we we OWN Jaffna and Batticaloa today?

  • niranjan

    Longus,

    The past is also the present and the future. There cannot be a present and a future without the past. A country has a history and in our case a bloody one.

  • indonicus

    “Perhaps the massacre of thousands and thousands of people 200 years ago was carried out in the name of defeating terrorism where all means are justified. Remember, a non-state actor had taken on the state in violent insurrection in 1818? And the British OWNED us then just we we OWN Jaffna and Batticaloa today?”

    Good one Dingiri. Perhaps it is salutary to remember that the British frequently called the Kandyan rebels “bandits”.

  • Romesh H

    @ Malinda,

    Speaking as a Sri Lankan expatriate, I think there are a couple of considerations that you seem to be unaware of:

    1. Language is always ‘time-contexted’ and ‘space-contexted’. Its called being an individual, and being a construct of their own experiences. I dont think anyone denies the existence of Sri Lankan English and ‘Snooty English’ (slightly derogotory no?).

    2. Your second article is rife with assumptions. You mention the plight of Imihami Mudiyanselage Ratnamalala and Jude Dissanayake. You assume that the latter goes to university as he speaks ‘Snooty English’ and the former speaks Sri Lankan English. Speaking as a former file reader for a North American law school, you are completely wrong about their respective outcomes. Generally speaking, and notwithstanding the quirks of individual faculties, the admissions process is all about how each candidate expresses themselves. In fact I suspect a world renowned post-graduate program in Critical Studies would actually appreciate a Sri Lankan English speaker more than a ‘Snooty English’ speaker.

    3. You truly are blessed with an instinct for the dramatic, even though a number of your assertions are unfounded. You talk about Snooty English being oppressive, however you are quite adept in wielding it yourself. You talk about self-indulgence and self-defeating dabbling, but proceed to pen a piece that dabbles in apologizing. You talk about tyranny but proceed to use the same tools that tyrants use to denigrate their subjects: coarse language, derogotary malignments and ‘gotcha’ catchphrases. All the while neglecting to interact with the substantive nature of the project: to create a Sri Lankan English language that “reflects the local culture, environment, history and linguistic context, and which (crucially) adheres to certain (as yet hazily defined) standards.”

    In short, just because you believe that one cannot succeed using Sri Lankan English, does not make it so; in fact the contrary may be far more relevant than your musings.

  • longus

    niranjan

    All countries do possess bloody histories.Are there any exceptions?

  • longus

    niranjan

    My argument still stands man,in spite of what you say! Besides it’s not only the history of ours that is bloody!

    SD

    How can you say that I’m stereotyping Tamils and the British? It’s you who accuse me of it without valid reasons and thereby it’s you who stereotype me as anti-Tamil which is not true. I have a lot of Tamil friends and I always put my point across to them when it comes to ethnicity. Just because I voiced my point of view I was never called “anti-Tamil”. In that case everybody who speaks for Tamil rights must be called a racist too!

    My counter- argument to what “somewhatDisgusted” said still stands unanswered.

  • longus

    idonicus

    It’s a different story altogether when Britain occupied a foreign country and exercised all the ills of colonialism. That’s what Weera Puran Appu is reported to have said before his execution in 1848-“This is not your Queen’s land;this is our land that you are looting;you have no right to our land”

    I don’t know how you can say the same thing about Baticaloa and Jaffna,when those places were part of a unitary state for the most part of our history.

    In that case Britain should give back Scottland and Ireland back to those people from whom they plundered those territories. There shouldn’t be a “Britain” or a “British Prime Minister”!

  • Romesh H
    Hard as I may try, I find it increasingly difficult to disagree with you on the traits exhibited by Malinda in his rebuttals. These are certainly not mere knee-jerk reactions of his to this specific issue. Long have I noticed this unsavoury trend in his other writings which to me appears to be a subconscience expression of an inner complex wrought by the writers fears, imagined or otherwise, of subjugation and domination where offense is looked upon as the best form of defence. The added danger in his case is that his reaction also smacks strongly of ideologies shaped by deep feelings of class and communalism, not to mention the oh-so evident ambiances of his political beliefs.However, I cannot agree with you when you assume that a world renowned post-graduate program in Critical Studies would actually appreciate a Sri Lankan English speaker more than a ‘Snooty English’ speaker. Nor do I contribute to your theory that ” just because you believe that one cannot succeed using Sri Lankan English, does not make it so; in fact the contrary may be far more relevant than your musings”. Come on now, being a former file reader for a North American Law School, Im sure you know better than that. Try working out a lecture or even a mere discussion in Sri Lankan English to your law school associates and see if you dont get pie smashed in your face. There is nothing admirable about the so-called Lankan English and to that extent I think Malinda is fully justified in his crusade (pardon the pun) of ensuring that Michael’s project, however lucrative or prestigious Michael may seem to find it, is not given the seal of approval by our short-sighted officials. In short, if you cannot speak proper English , just do not. Dont be the laughing stock of the rest of the world.

  • Romesh H

    @ Ramzi,
    Thanks for your comment. As I said in my original post, this is a suspicion more than a reality. However within the legal world in North America, there are numerous lawyers who speak variants of Indian-English, Pakistani-English, Guyanese-English and variants in between. This is not to mention the countless amount of university students speaking South American English, Ghanaian English, etc.

    As for Critical Studies, the whole subject area is grounded on theories of power; theories which I suspect Mahinda agrees with (as per his first piece). The philosopher Jacques Derrida made a whole career talking about the importance of language while there is a whole field of literary theory devoted to the subject. (By the way, all this evidence is anecodotal and from what I have seen; in no way does this mean that you are guaranteed to get in)

    As such, it really doesnt matter if you contribute to my theory that ” just because you believe that one cannot succeed using Sri Lankan English, does not make it so; in fact the contrary may be far more relevant than your musings”. The reality here in North America suggests otherwise.

    The underlying problem is that you see the West as ethnically and linguistically homogeneous. The reality is that it isnt. All ‘Snooty English’ does is allow an individual to communicate more effectively in Western power dynamics in the language and grammar that people in power are accustomed to hear. If you effectively communicate the same ideas in Sri Lankan English (or any English-variant) then the same result will ensue.

    One last thing. You state that “if you cannot speak proper English , just do not. Dont be the laughing stock of the rest of the world.” You do realize that nobody in the Western world wishes an opponent to” get pie smashed in your face.” By your own exacting standard, you may want to stop English.

    Rather than argue the intricacies of English maybe we should focus on getting our youth to express themselves better? To me that is the underlying nature of the Sri Lankan English project.

  • niranjan

    Longus,

    This country could have avoided a bloody history after independance if we had intelligent politicians. We still dont.

  • Rukmankan Sivaloganathan

    longus – your riposte to SomewhatDisgusted is spot on, though I feel that may be exactly the point he/she was trying to get across. However, your assertion that Batticaloa and Jaffna were always part of a unified country is wrong. When the British came we had a number of separate kingdoms, including a Tamil one in Jaffna. Read about the Nallur Convention.

    About Malinda…ever since the war ended he has seemed a bit directionless. The man needs issues to address, fights to fight etc. He’s trying his best to provoke Dayan Jayatilleka into a debate by constantly belittling him in his column but it doesn’t seem to be working. So it’s only natural he’d jump into this fray. I won’t comment on the debate itself as I haven’t really followed it.

  • When is Malinda’s Government going to compensate the Tamils for all the looting, the cultural genocide, rape of young girls and the massacre of thousands and thousands of women children and old people during the so called ‘Humanitarian Operation?’

  • Veedhur

    Hi Where can we buy a copy of Arjuna’s book that Malinda is referring to in Sri Lanka? and Can any one point me to stuff that Pradeep has written on the subject (has he written anything in Sinhala?)

  • ethnichybrid

    Malintha has a huge chip on his shoulder. And I agree that since the war is over, he seems quite directionless. He was at first gung ho about the President, almost shameless in his brown nosing in his articles. He must have influenced thousands of people by his unwavering and almost hero worshipping support of the President. Now however, he seems to be scared by a President who is running amok! Malintha, know that it is partly your irresponsible journalism that has brought us to this point in our own shameful history. As has been mentioned before, we can’t blame the British for everything. It is we Sinhalese who invited them to take us over. We were happy to be a colony for many years, we didn’t even fight for independence and got it on the back of India. So stop beating this colonial, oh we are so oppressed drum – and I am glad to see you engage in responsible journalism, though it might be a tad too late!