Sunday Observer Online


Sunday, 8 November 2009





Marriage Proposals
Government Gazette

Linguistic nationalism as a facet of decolonization and new writings

Linguistic nationalism is an important facet of decolonisation. It should be emphasised that in order to retooling English as a language which is capable of expressing authentic native experiences and realities, it is important to own it by the users. The Kind of linguistic nationalism that is needed at this hour is not the one which promotes only vernaculars but one which retools English as a language of creativity facilitating growth of a Sri Lankan literary tradition in English.

Linguistic imperialism

Even after the British left the shores, they maintain their grip on the English language education in the former colonies. According to Professor Edwin Thumboo, Singapore's foremost poet and an academic "starting from early in twentieth century, university departments were set up in the Canada, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand to teach English, that is, literature. They had strong Oxbridge ancestry. There were already distinctions and assumptions - almost all repackaging with strong imperial inputs firmly in place to shape and service the system. First, they bear a conviction; departments in Britain were superior. However, the point is that it creates 'them and us' syndrome, quietly placed in to say, confidential references for applicants seeking a post; "good enough to teach in an overseas department."

Prof. Thumboo pointed out that this authority that British exercise over English has created a linguistic imperialism. He cites a few examples from Robert Philipson's Linguistic Imperialism (1992). Undoubtedly, Robert Phillipson has made a major contribution to our understanding of the social construction of English as a 'world language' representing potent symbolic medium within the global cultural economy expanding our knowledge on creating a culture of imperialism through English language.

Professor Thumboo giving an exclusive interview to the Sunday Observer stated that "for economic and diplomatic reasons English, the language more than literature, offered opportunities to move into a lucrative niche within the educational set up of almost all the former colonies. These countries needed English for a host of reasons. It created a new imperialism".

Robert Philipson has stated in Linguistic Imperialism "to put more metaphorically, whereas once Britain ruled the waves, now it is English which rules them. The British empire has given way to the Empire of English".

Prof. Thumboo stressed that reasons for control of the expansion of English was the massive employment and income it generated. There are many acronyms to promote the language. One such term is ELT (English Language Teaching) which has boomed over the past 30 years, and seen a proliferation of university departments, language schools, publications, conferences, and all the paraphernalia of established professions.

ELT is also a billion-pound business, described in an Economic Intelligence Unit study of English as "world commodity", in a report written to promote strategies for capitalising further on this growth industry."

He has further stressed that "while the enforcing political power behind English ceased with decolonisation, blunt economic realities that took full advantage of the need for English. The lost empire was cushioned by assiduously cultivated and profitable English imperia; subtle, insinuating and therefore more insidious, invested in purveyors of English language, the specialists. There was also KELP which stands for Key English Language Personnel. The colonial distance was now linguistic distance, with room for maintaining a profitable disparity. Acronyms mushroomed, among them TESOL and ESP: Teaching of English to Speakers of Other Languages and English for Special Purposes."

Sri Lankan literary landscape

In Sri Lanka, three main languages namely Sinhalese, Tamils and English make up the nation's literary landscape. Like most of the countries in the Asia, Sri Lanka also shares a legacy of colonialism which bequeathed Sri Lanka, among other things, the language of the Colonial master, English.

Without any dispute, one can agree that the most influential among the colonisers were the British who brought the country under their wings in 1815. The fall of the Sinhala monarchy heralded an era of modernisation which saw the construction of both railway lines, first from Colombo to Kandy and a network of roads connecting capital Colombo to the diverse parts of the country. The British laid a firm foundation for a modern state with English educated bureaucracy and a system of education which was among the best in Asia. What is important here, however, is not the impressive infrastructure the British built up in Sri Lanka but the motive and objectives behind this exercise.

The motive was to perpetuate the British Empire. It should be stated here that former colonisers such as Portuguese and Dutch who captured the coastal belt of the Island for obvious commercial reasons did not have a desire to control the entire country. However, they had left their footprints in the architecture and by way of customs and traditions among the communities stretched along the coastal belt. Although generations of English educated Sri Lankans worked in the medium of English, it was much later they began to use English as a language of creativity.

Therefore, compared to Sinhalese and Tamil, the corpus of literature in English in Sri Lanka is relatively small. However, it does not mean that those writers who write in English have not made a considerable impact on the use of English as a medium of creativity. One of the positive outcomes of English medium journalism and creative writings in Sri Lanka is the sea change of attitude in the use of English in general and notion of standard English in particular.

Over the years Sri Lankan writers in English have device a diction and idiom in English which is distinctively Sri Lankan while adhering to rules of conventional English grammar and syntax. Sri Lankan diasporic writers who earned a name in the international arena of literature are Yasmin Goonaratne, Michael Ondaatje, Romesh Gunasekara, Shyam Selvadurai. Among the Sinhala writing recently emerging from Australia include the works of D.

B. Kuruppu, Sunil Govinnage, Palitha Ganewatte, Jagath J. Edirisinghe representing a growing corpus of Sinhala diasporic writings emerging from Down Under. Some of them have also published in English adding new dimensions to Sri Lankan literature. These dimensions includes not only the lost of inheritance such as native language but also interpretation of nationhood of domiciled country.

Commenting on Govinnage's English short stories, Professor Wimal Dissanayake writes: "He encodes some of the deeper desires and self-subverting ambiguities of identity-formation in the Australian context thereby calling attention to the role of the Other in the construction of Australian nationhood." Ajith Samaranayake reviewing D.B. Kurruppu's work to the Sunday Observer wrote: "A master of the language Kuruppu excels at shooting satirical barbs at the oddities and foibles of his countrymen exiled in the vast Australian outback. Yet this irony is also laced with a nostalgia for times past for Kuruppu's work is a salute to a way of life we have irrevocably lost."

The important factor which is common to these new writings is that their creations are either dominated by nostalgic past or the issues such a loss of inheritance both in terms of culture and language and pervasive question of identity.

As pointed out earlier that in order to create an English literary tradition firmly grounded in native soil, it is of importance to dismantle the hegemony, creating a tradition of native criticism. It is for this purpose, that a kind of linguistic nationalism is needed to represent the soul and psyche of Sri Lankan nation.



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