Rod MacKenzie
Rod MacKenzie

A response to Ismail Lagardien’s “We do not have to apologise for not speaking ‘proper English’ “

I loved Ismail Lagardien’s article which was inspired by my innocuous – or so I thought — comment on another blog. I thought it was a compliment that he took to task my remark on using correct English.

I laughed at the nickname he gave me in the commentary box when he replied to commentators in my defense. His name for me is Macca. Man, this one I like too much, especially because it rhymes with kaka, a whimsical point I will get to later.

I agree with the spirit of Ismael’s argument and standpoint. However, I wish to explore some aspects of what he said and then also look at that sub-text which beleaguers blog writing, namely the weird and wonderful comments below his article.

So my first issue is the use of the word “we” in Ismail’s blog title. Who are “we”? When did I point a finger at a particular “we”? Ismail’s immediate assumption is second and third language speakers.

I never said that.

What then followed was that wackiest of creatures, the, ta daah… Commentary! The first gentleman to hop on the stage says I should “get a life” when I was not pointing a finger at anyone in particular. That particular reader, Sandile Memene, then goes on to decide that I have poor reading and listening skills, that I nit-pick and that I am a “baas” with all the historical pejorative that can be assigned to that word. The gentleman has no grounds for saying that.

Ismail, you did not write Sandile’s remark, but you incited it, because you decided who my “we” was, not me. Is that fair?

It therefore follows that the irresponsible use of the word “we” in Ismail’s title undermines his protest against my remark that some of the English I see in blogs is atrocious.

I can only assume that the “we” are second or third language speakers, going by Ismail’s thread of thought. Okay, let’s assume that. But what makes Ismail think I am referring to “them”? These are not rhetorical questions; I am challenging Ismail to answer them. And the whole idea, my broer, is not to get into a brawl, like some commentators, hey boet? Let’s discuss this like two gennelmen, Ish & Macca. That could become the title for a show.

So, who is my “we”? I am actually referring to anyone who uses English badly in a responsible, polemical forum, which Thought Leadership no doubt – if we look at its title alone — is meant to be.

One commentator on the blog, GS van Zyl, rather flatteringly compares me – with his tongue in cheek no doubt — to a classical pianist. If we extend his metaphor and cut out his reference to me, he has a very good point.

When a pianist in an orchestra plays A Major instead of A minor, or is out of rhythm, the whole musical meditation falls apart and is almost impossible to re-gather. This is partly because there are a lot of sensitive ears in the audience who shuddered as the pianist bungled. I am sure the illustration I am about to make is already clear to readers: if a person cannot write well in the language he is using, the intended meanings fall apart and the readers rightly dismiss him.

I almost feel like deleting the above; to me it is so obvious, but sometimes the obvious needs to be pointed out. It is not so evident to Ismail – I think — when he goes on about “imperialist” English in the way it dominates world thinking — without telling us if he is happy with a clear, standard English. To me the benchmark for good, polemical writing is “simple is beautiful”. Ismail’s “Imperialist English” paragraph, while it shows erudition, does not really get to any concrete point to which I could then respond.

I hasten to add that I apply this standard of simplicity and clarity to objective, polemical writing, not poetry and literature in general, where creativity and playfulness with language should be encouraged, as Ismail also points out.

Hence, whilst it is not as creative as say, that wonderful clown and bender of poetic rules, the poet or anti-poet Adrian Mitchell, I offer you my Macca limerick:

There’s a TL blogger dubbed Macca
Whose scorning lips like to pucker:
“Oh, that’s such bad prose!”
(Or so he crows)
And got himself in the kaka.

I first heard the word “kaka” when I lived in England. Of course my ears pricked up when I heard locals using it, and, ja boet, it has the same meaning as the Suid Afrikaner word without the “a” at the end. It is British slang, at least in the Southampton-Portsmouth area where I lived. I could not determine the provenance.

It is easy to forget that writing is actually an art form. This is because anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of a language can write a shopping list in that language. But not anyone can pick up a guitar and do what Frank Santana can do. Not anyone can paint the way Henri Mattise can. To state the obvious, can’t the same respect be shown for any language, that the professional use of it requires talent and lots of practice? This is not to say anyone has to be a genius like the two artists I mention above, but you get my drift.

Ismail then says that I probably won’t like the writings of Arundhati Roy because she comes from a different continent, Asia. Well, congratulations, Ish, you have created a Rod MacKenzie in your head that does not exist. I’d like to meet him sometime. I want to find out if he is as jovial as me or is he the pedant you seem to create. Your Rod MacKenzie, or Macca, cannot possibly be gleaned from my comment on Sarah Britten’s article. You do your intellectualism serious violence.

Ismail avows he is not fluent in English. I disagree. He seems to say this because he tells us the neuroscientist Helen Neville asserts that, if left until after the age of eleven, a person cannot learn a language fluently. So Ismail decides Helen Neville is his madam and he just accepts that he cannot be fluent. Thanks madam for nice eddykashin, can I go now? Dankie baas. Ismail is not doing himself a favour. Is he saying he is not fluent with discursive English or emotive English?

I doubt the discursive is his problem. He is perfectly capable of writing abstract thoughts, though I do feel sometimes he could get to the point quicker, or, as in his “imperialist” “hegemony of English” paragraph, get to some kind of specific point.

Ismail seems to forget that most mother tongue speakers of English cannot write English as well as him. Not by a long chalk. And I am not trying to flatter him.

So why is he saying he is not fluent? Is it a lack of emotively understood English – an inability to feel the language the way a child like who I was could? Let’s assume I am correct and explore this a bit.

The words “bloody hell” may mean nothing to an Afrikaans child even though he knows the dictionary definitions of the words. But if those words rolled off my mother’s lips I froze (emotive response) and knew I was in the kaka. Either jump out the bedroom window and run, boetie, or that clothes-brush is gonna make your bum very eina.

So many words have a deeply emotive meaning, as Ismail knows. Horror words like kaffir are only horror words in a particular context, namely South Africa and in New Zealand because of the influx of South African immigrants.

If I have to explain to a Chinese student the k-word, I feel obliged to explain its origins. The word refers to a non-believer, specifically someone not Muslim and even more specifically, at one point in time, the Ottoman word for Christian. But of course the k-word no longer means non-believer. That is to say, it elicits a powerful, ugly, emotive response in most South Africans. But no matter how carefully I explain the new meaning of the k-word, the Chinese student is never, ever, going to emotively understand the collective, disgusted response to the word the overwhelming majority of South Africans have.

So is Ismail saying that he is not fluent because of his inability to respond to the language emotively?

Of course not.

His response to my off-the-cuff remark in a commentary box was entirely emotive, which he then endorsed with an intellectual argument.

So what is fluency?

There are Westerners here in China who have mastered one of the most difficult languages in the world. Not me, not yet. A Mandarin Chinese speaker does not easily accept that “foreigners” can speak Chinese.

At first some refuse to understand us because it is outside of their insulated thinking to do so, and I now have (just and only) an intermediate grasp of Mandarin. The people on the street are very cut off from the rest of the world, and by that I mean the very next city in China. So when Chinese people say some waiguoren, foreigners, are fluent, they mean it. And those Westerners only started learning Mandarin when they were adults.

Ismail is not doing himself a favour when he says he is not fluent in English. He sadly and ironically lets himself become another victim of the “complete hegemony of English”.

Correct me, Ish. Please.