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Speech by Dr Dushyanthi Mendis

Speech given by Dr Dushyanthi Mendis, Senior Lecturer in English, University of Colombo, at the launch of A Dictionary of Sri Lankan English, at the British Council, Colombo on 27 November 2007

As a linguist, teacher and above all, a speaker of Sri Lankan English (SLE), I cannot tell you how often I have wished that someone would describe and document the features of the English that we use in Sri Lanka. That this “someone” is a native speaker of British English is particularly fortuitous for us, because it enables him to observe our use of English objectively, as well as to offer us an informed point of comparison in relation to the language that SLE was originally derived from—that is, British English.

For example, it was only after talking to Michael Meyler, the author of the Dictionary of Sri Lankan English, that I realized that we have made the noun “horn” into a verb in SLE. We think nothing of saying “Don’t horn so loudly” or “Why is he horning so loudly?” in everyday conversation. But in Britain, I have learnt, “horn” is a noun, not a verb. So you would say “toot your horn” or “blow your horn” but you would never drive up to someone’s gate and “horn”.

These and other fascinating discoveries are to be found in the Dictionary of Sri Lankan English. It is therefore much more than your ordinary, typical dictionary, because it gives you not only the meaning of a word or phrase, but also examples of use taken from both spoken and written SLE. Here again, Meyler is able, from his objective stance, to comment that SLE shows a more marked difference between speech and writing than British English does—not an observation that most of us would have been able to make, not having a native speaker’s proficiency in any other variety of English as a point of comparison.

One way in which Meyler has been able to draw comparisons and contrasts between spoken and written SLE, is by using a corpus of 30 contemporary books written by Sri Lankan authors. In his Dictionary, you will find sample sentences taken from one or more of these published books to illustrate how a particular word or phrase is used, and in what context. Similarly, some entries in the Dictionary have the letters coll after them. This indicates that the word or phrase tends to be used in spoken English only, and would be considered too informal or colloquial to be used in writing.

For teachers of English, Meyler’s observations and comments on how certain words are pronounced in SLE might be an eye-opener, and sometimes even a point of controversy. The pronunciation he gives may appear to you to be non-standard, and not the accepted norm of standard Sri Lankan English. However, while we do need a larger and more representative sample before we can draw any definite conclusions, we must remember that all languages undergo evolution and change; and what we see now as deviations, aberrations or non-standard use in stress and pronunciation, could well be the beginning of the standard of the future.

This dictionary, with its meticulously researched definitions, descriptions and examples, serves two very important functions in my mind. First, I see it as a significant move towards obtaining international recognition for SLE as a distinct South Asian variety. Secondly, and more importantly, I hope that it will contribute towards the process of acceptance—within ourselves—of the existence of SLE. I continue to meet people—even teachers of English—who still insist that the English we speak is British English, and in some alarming cases, even RP or Received Pronunciation, which even in Britain, is becoming increasingly uncommon.

What is SLE? Briefly, it is a type of English that is distinct from other principal varieties such as American, British, Australian, Indian or Singaporean English in terms of the vocabulary or the words we use, syntax or the way we combine words and phrases to make sentences, pronunciation, stress patterns, etc. The English we speak in Sri Lanka is distinct because it shows many features of a language in contact situation—in this case, three languages, from three different language families –English (Germanic), Sinhala (Indo-Aryan) and Tamil (Dravidian). In the multilingual and multicultural environment that is Sri Lanka, English, historically a language that has borrowed extensively from other languages and cultures, has evolved into a means of communication that is distinctively ours, and instantly recognizable as such.

Where else but in Sri Lanka would you hear of a jing bang, a funeral house, a funk stick, bed tea, of doing further studies, of a water-cutting ceremony, or someone who stingyfies? If these and other words in Meyler’s Dictionary sound familiar to you, and if you can use them correctly in a sentence, you have passed the test—you are a native speaker of Sri Lankan English.

Why is this important? It is important because having native speakers is a significant step for a language to gain recognition as a language. Outside Sri Lanka, in countries like Britain, America and Australia, to name just a few, we are all considered to be non-native speakers of English, or speakers of English as a Second or Foreign language, no matter how fluent we might be in Sri Lankan English. We need to gain recognition for SLE as a language of its own, different no doubt from the better known international varieties, but nevertheless a language that allows us to communicate efficiently in all possible spheres, both official and personal. This is not to say that we should ignore or dismiss the existence of international or global varieties of English; but, rather, to draw attention to the fact that, knowing and speaking English in Sri Lanka is an advantage because, as Meyler states in the Introduction to his Dictionary, the fluent speaker of SLE is able to switch between “Sri Lankan mode” and “international mode” when the context demands it.

The fact that there are so many people at the launch brings several thoughts to mind. You would not be here if you did not have at least a passing curiosity or interest in Sri Lankan English; some of you are here because you consider it momentous that a first step towards the codification of Sri Lankan English has been taken; others may be doubtful, or skeptical, and continue to remain so even after leafing through the Dictionary. But for all those like myself, who are excited, enthusiastic, and eager for more discussion, debate and research on Sri Lankan English, we owe Meyler a debt of thanks for 20 years of focused, meticulous work.

Dushyanthi Mendis 27/11/2007



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