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Review by Dilini Algama

Who’s collecting “bits and bobs”: Meyler or Dylan?
by Dilini Algama
Sunday Times Plus 23/03/2008

I write in reference to Dylan Perera’s article titled “Witty, but an exercise of little value?” on page 8, of The Sunday Times Plus, of March 2. Dylan Perera makes several interesting and imaginative remarks and raises some interesting questions in his review of Michael Meyler’s A Dictionary of Sri Lankan English. To start with, Meyler’s mission, I suppose could be captured in a creative caricature of a loyal Brit collecting ‘bits and bobs’ from the ‘backwaters’ of the Orient, but it’s hardly the case. I highly doubt if he owns a golden telescope and if he reports to the Queen in wigs and frilly shirts. It’s a cute idea though.

On the other hand Meyler is in the perfect position to notice that the English spoken (and written) in Sri Lanka is different to his first language, which is British English (BE). It’s either that or lots of people had a hand in a monumental conspiracy to mislead Meyler for 20 years through their English usage.

Whatever English that arrived on our shores has been influenced by our ways, lives, culture, etc. Therefore what we use now is Sri Lankan English (SLE), a variety that is clearly distinguishable in many ways from British English, as Meyler points out in his comprehensive introduction to his dictionary. Languages evolve and draw from the cultures they thrive in, irrespective where they originated from. Thus you get Australian English, Indian English, Canadian French, Mexican Spanish, American English and a whole lot more. The mirisgala shows exactly what will happen to a language. One will take the white pol kudu and after a nice grinding it will be spicy enough and well coloured to suit one’s palate. We have symbolically ground up the English that was brought here, flavoured it with all sorts of additions of our own and now it’s our own.

Therefore ‘sloppy language’ is an inapplicable term in denial of a picture larger than an “impressive variety of SriLankanisms”. Dylan Perera writes of Johnson and Webster who “formalized an existing word-stock that was already used in a complex and sophisticated discourse”. The result of Michael Meyler’s 20 years of linguistic observation and data collection is the beginning of a similar codification. Dylan Perera may have only had time to “flick through” A Dictionary of Sri Lankan English, but during those two decades Meyler read, researched, possibly eavesdropped and documented an existing phenomenon. Meyler isn’t giving us subtle hints as to how we must use words, but is telling the reader how they are already being used.

SLE is not any and everything that breaks the grammar rules of BE. It has its own rules and characteristics and also it has already been documented by scholars in a 40-year tradition of linguistic research and is in the process of being more thoroughly documented at present.

Certainly there are certain similarities between SLE and BE, notably in spelling, but there are also differences in syntax and lexicon, especially as Sinhala and Tamil have been major influences on the English language in Sri Lanka. One can also look to pronunciation to find a contrast between SLE and BE.

Dylan Perera says that the value of SLE is linked to that of the Sri Lankan rupee that “has been falling steadily since the 60’s.” The phrase does have a creative twist to it, but not much truth. He’s right about the rupee though, but contradicts himself when he writes of an SLE that, according to him, must have existed in the late ’50’s to have taken a mutual course with the rupee, but devotes the rest of his article to invalidating its existence.

However, he has asked what could be particularly Sri Lankan about the word ‘rag’. The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary gives several definitions for ‘rag’ none being ‘university rag’ as Meyler has defined it. ‘Rag’ in SLE is a Sri Lankan phenomenon commonly seen in Universities, and known in the United States as ‘hazing’. Meyler is indeed “admirably sensitive to subtle shifts in meaning”. And I hold a view different to his when he says that SLE is incapable of conveying a commonly accepted meaning.

In the end it is not the Britisher who has stereotypically been collecting ‘bits and bobs’, but Dylan Perera himself because in reviewing A Dictionary of Sri Lankan English it is he who mentions caste, Pluto the former planet, butterfly collecting, fossils from Patagonia, birds in Kurdish marshes, radio DJs, metaphysical poets, cockney rhyming slang and rather helpfully what ‘calorific mama’ means.

Dylan Perera’s article is witty, a subject he appears to be fond of, but his knowledge of SLE or of language for that matter is questionable (he says that radio DJs are the central bankers of language) and one wonders what powers he has to so authoritatively dismiss a systematic collection of words and phrases and their use in Sri Lankan contexts of writing and speech.



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