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
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
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
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.