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]