'Erotic sentences'by Andaiye

Woman's-eye View
Stabroek News
May 7, 2000

There are people who are thinking of reading this column who would normally not read Woman's-eye View; they've been misled by the title. But I could just as well have titled the column 'Massacring the language,' since 'Erotic sentences' is only my favourite example of the massacring of language that is becoming a national trait: the title is taken from a TV announcer who, on Thursday, June 18, 1999, announced that "magistrates are coming up with erotic sentences." This was at the time when there was some little debate about the unpredictable, inconsistent, and yes, erratic nature of court sentencing in Guyana.

On the other hand, to say that magistrates are coming up with erotic sentences is to open up a host of interesting possibilities. Some other examples of mistakes which tell unintended truths:

* A recent programme guide on a TV station which came on at about 9 or 10 pm informed viewers that at 11 pm we would experience "sigh-off."

* A sign outside Bourda market one day (perhaps longer) advertised "hole chicken."

* An ad for a Georgetown hospital invites viewers to patronise it because, now that it has been upgraded, it "stimulates" the home environment. (My friend M who saw the ad called the hospital to ask that the mistake be corrected, but the person on the other end of the line did not understand the problem). By the way, for those who immediately assume that it was Channel 6 where I heard about "erotic sentences," it wasn't.

People often use the grammatical and other errors that others make as an excuse for ridicule, and the impulse to ridicule is often related to race and/or class: there's an assumption of a 'we' who are well-educated and have always been well-educated, and a 'they' whose English is ridiculous and to be ridiculed. A speaker or writer may make a good or new or perceptive point but it is dismissed because the English is wrong. 'We' also dismiss Creolese as 'wrong English,' even when Creolese describes and explains our environment better than standard English does. And this last point leads us to what is important about the use of language. Form and content are related. How things are said is part of what they say. And so it is true sometimes that a point, even if good or new or perceptive, is not clear - is not even there - because of how badly it is expressed.

So let's admit, without any attempt to be snide, that there is a cross-class, cross-race, national epidemic of wrong English that needs to end. It is largely a reflection of the decades-old breakdown of our education system. Sometimes, it is simply a reflection of our growing nothing-matters carelessness. I don't know which produced the following examples from recent editions of the two daily newspapers:

* In the first, the May 1, 2000 edition of one daily had the Minister of Labour making three remarks (see the pull-out, page 11) about "per capital" income": "Guyana now has a per capital income of about (US) $800..."; "Little Grenada and Dominica presently have per capital incomes of over (US) $3000"; "There are problems associated with judging a country by its per capital income". (My friend C says these are references to the incomes of various capital cities. And my grandmother used to say that once is mistake, twice is stupidness and three times is do-fuh-spite).

So let's admit, without any attempt to be snide, that there is a cross-class, cross-race, national epidemic of wrong English that needs to end

* In the second example the back page of the same edition of the same newspaper explained twice that Pakistan had just had a "moral boosting win."

* In the third example, found in the other daily on May 4, it is the headline which misinforms: it says, "Committee to merge Independence holiday with Indian Immigration Day." Let us ignore that Independence is May 26 and Indian Immigration Day, May 5. I was already thinking how this directive from the President would enrage all those fighting for the recognition of Indian Arrival Day when I noticed that in the story under the headline, what the President had asked a committee to do was to look at incorporating the two holidays into the national calendar of holidays. Too much of what is written and said in the newspapers and on the TV and radio is wrong English, sometimes delivered with an air of great superiority, even infallibility. One radio announcer was heard one early morning pronouncing on the "is-let" off the coast of Antigua. A TV talk show host was heard last Tuesday night saying that most Guyanese speak "broken" English even as he scattered subjects and verbs to the winds.

What to do? There are people who say that we need to approach the teaching of English with the tools used for teaching English-as-a-second-language. I'm not sure why, except for Amerindian children whose home language is, for example, Patamona. Decades ago, I went to St Sidwell's Primary School speaking Creolese as my 'first language.' In quick time, I knew both Creolese and standard English. The teaching was informed and it was rigorous - and I am not referring to the blows which came with the teaching. Indeed, since we are so insistent on keeping only bad things from the past, blows still go with teaching; what has gone is the rigour of old-time teaching which taught rules and made students practise applying them. Whatever more modern teaching methods the world has developed since then, it remains true, I think, that children whose 'first language' is Creolese will learn standard English if they are formally taught. And this means in turn that those teachers of English who themselves were never formally taught standard English must be taught how to learn it and teach it simultaneously.

People working in the Ministry of Education often feel that their efforts to reform education are unappreciated, even unseen. I think it's because even if there are occasional successes, overall the reform isn't working because what the education system needs is not reform but something much more radical. This can only be decided at the political level - a broad, all-encompassing national campaign for literacy, in and out of schools, using the generations who were formally taught standard English as its first batch of teachers and building from there. "Erotic sentences" is kind of funny. So is "sigh-off." They would be really, really funny if they had been used intentionally. But they weren't, and that's not funny. It's sad. And frightening.