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Yours, sir, is a LAFA

April 16, 2012

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MOST people reading this probably have, tucked away in the back of their minds, memories of a succession of teachers drumming into their heads lessons on the Queen’s English.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the Queen’s English as the language as regarded under the guardianship of the Queen (when the reigning monarch is male, it changes to the King’s English), hence standard or correct English.

In terms of grammar, it refers to the rules and usages as standardised in the UK, and pronunciation- and accent-wise the term refers to what is thought of as the clearest and most widely understood accent, ‘received pronunciation’ also referred to as ‘Oxford English’ or ‘BBC English’.

Be that as it may, the language is a vibrant one and people across the world and in the UK have made it their own by gleefully diversifying it. As a result of the English-speaking peoples’ interactions with the world, meanwhile, the language itself has absorbed new words and phrases.

From the subcontinent alone have come ‘pyjama’, ‘bandanna’, ‘bangle’, ‘bungalow’, ‘guru’, ‘jungle’, ‘veranda’ and many others. Sri Lanka has compiled an entire dictionary of words that are used only in that country. (One of these is ‘floor patients’, which describes the people who, unable to find a bed in a ward, are forced to camp out on the floor of a medical facility.)

The debate over whether the Queen’s English is the best is because there do exist differences between it and English as used in different parts of the world. The American English pronunciation of ‘route’ or ‘vase’, for example, makes purists cringe. In Malaysia, having an ‘off day’ means to ‘have the day off’, not to ‘have a bad day’ as the Queen’s English demands. To ‘chop’ a document means to rubberstamp it, not cut it down. In the UK, ‘wicked’ is popularly used to mean ‘good’.

In countries where English is commonly spoken, particularly those that suffered colonialism under the British, the ability to speak the Queen’s English is associated with a certain nebulous prestige.

The grammar is important, of course, but great weight is given to the accent and pronunciation as well, with this aspect often being thought of as constituting the difference between the working classes and the elites. In Pakistan in recent days, for example, there have been a few snickers over Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani’s inability to properly pronounce ‘sovereignty’.

But Ghana, it seems, has decided to fight back. Old-style Ghanians speak — as in Pakistan and other places with varying degrees of success — the Queen’s English.

As reported by The Guardian, according to the head of linguistics at the University of Ghana, Prof Kofi Agyekum, “there has been a significant change now, away from those who think sounding English is prestigious, towards those who value being multilingual, who would never neglect our mother tongues, and who are happy to sound Ghanian when we speak English”.

The argument is that linking the ability to speak English like the British to intelligence amounts to having a colonial hangover; that Ghanians who speak in their own way, with their own accents and/or pronunciation, should not be objects of derision. And Ghanian English can give you the question ‘Have you eat?’ which could be answered by ‘No, I go eat after small small’.

How is Ghana turning the tables on the old guard? The practice of mimicking ‘English English’ has been dubbed LAFA, or ‘locally acquired foreign accent’. It is the people afflicted by LAFAs, now, who have become objects of derision. Prof Agyekum feels that people were trying to speak in a way that didn’t seem natural. “They think it sounds prestigious, but frankly it sounds like they’re overdoing it.”

(Ghana has nine indigenous languages that are officially sponsored by the government, a further 26 that are officially recognised and at least double that number that are also spoken.)

One must wish Ghana luck in its project to “turn the tables”, as one commentator was reported to have said, on the Queen’s English.

Personally, I think that languages ought to be written and spoken in their correct form. Slang is one thing, and sometimes words and phrases must be added to a language because it lacks expressions — because of historical and societal context — that convey the exact meaning required. Thus we have additions such as ‘floor patients’ or ‘mummy daddy’ people. And there does exist a need for languages to be flexible and coin new words and usages as times change.

Accent and pronunciation, however, are more problematic. One could argue that pronunciation should also be as received, but too many people find themselves derided or discriminated against in varying ways, here and elsewhere, because their English accent is not good enough.

While it would be absurd to lower standards when it comes to hiring, for example, an English teacher, it should not matter if one’s accent is Pakistani-ised while applying for a salesclerk’s job, or his or her pronunciation is less than BBC standard. Yet the prestige attached to English is such that in many spheres of operation, it becomes an informal but powerful requirement even though the language of transaction is likely to be Urdu or one of the regional languages.

And in Pakistan, there are two curious aspects to be noted. First, accent seems to be taking emphasis over grammar and pronunciation, with many people taking more pains over the former. Secondly, especially amongst the elites, an American accent appears to have gained more currency, something that can be explained by either the fact that the US is a popular destination for higher education, or the flood of American cultural products in the English-speaking world.

The work worth doing is for Pakistanis to make the jump that Ghana seems to have, i.e. realise that language and accent do not lend or necessarily reflect intelligence or worth — that the knowledge or talent of the boy who speaks with the Punjabi accent can be as good as (and be perceived as such) or even better than the boy who speaks with the MTV accent.

Perhaps Pakistan too needs to start laughing at victims of LAFA.

The writer is a member of staff.

hajrahmumtaz@gmail.com