If there’s one thing I learnt from this course is that everyone likes to have things their way. For instance, if a word is not defined the way they understand or the way they would define it, they would redefine it and add something to it until the deem it complete. According to this article, there are around 180,000 words in the Oxford English Dictionary, if not more now. 9,500 of these words are derived from another word which makes the English language quite redundant. John Fiske, one of the contributing authors of the book Introduction to Communication Studies and sole author of the second edition of said book, argues that you can delete 50% of the words in the English language and you could still be able to use the language perfectly well seeing as the words are repetitive.
Our topic in the presentations in pairs was Englishes of Africa. At first, I wasn’t supposed to be in this group because each group was supposed to be a group of pairs, but then I was adopted into it. The topic never really interested me much before especially since I went to high school with a lot of Lebanese people who were born in Africa (Cote d’ivoire, mostly) and migrated back to Lebanon after the civil war erupted there. I used to tutor some of them in English seeing as their base is French and their English wasn’t really strong, and I came out of this experience generalising all African individuals. I didn’t think that some of them might be going through the same internal conflict that I was going through. Which is my first language? Why am I more fluent in another language than my mother tongue? Shouldn’t I pursue a career solely in Arabic literature or am I a sell-out?
My part of the presentation was a Ngugi Wa Thiongo book review, which means that it’s not what the African writer himself wrote but what someone else thinks of his writing. The author of the review is also white and far from having an African English. I’ve always been scared from reviewers especially since I’m friends with a bunch of them. They can be harsh. And they don’t know what the writer is truly going through as he put these words to paper. It’s part of why I’m hesitant in publishing a book. However, the author of this certain book review wasn’t harsh, and they showed actual interest in a topic that wouldn’t typically be considered interesting to white men. I suppose skin colour, nationality, languages and the land we stand on do not define who we are and which country we belong to. We define it.
As I was curating data for the class’ tumblr, I stumbled upon this brilliant TEDxBeirut talk from November 2012 by Suzanne Talhouk titled “Don’t Kill Your Language.” Suzanne Talhouk is the founder of the Non-governmental Organisation Feil Amer (Arabic for ‘Order Verb’) that seeks to save the Arabic language and rise it to where it was a couple of decades ago.
The Arabic title for the video is “Meen ‘al iza hkina arabeh mn battel cool?” and it hits the nail right on its head seeing as the majority of Lebanese people avoid speaking Arabic so that they don’t sound old fashioned and uncool. It’s not just in business meetings; even the closest friends and family members would rather speak a broken French or English than be heard say a full sentence only in Arabic. Talhouk starts her talk by asking the audience if any of them wrote their name on their nametag in Arabic. No one says yes. She then goes on and starts telling a story about how one time she was in a restaurant and she asked the waiter for “leihit al akel” instead of saying “menu.” He didn’t understand her request. When she explained even more, still only using Arabic, he accused her smugly of not knowing what it’s called, and pulled a disgusted face, “You don’t know what they call it?” He said. They. Who they? Us? The Arabs? It’s funny because she knows more than him what they call it. While he only knows the international word, she knows the Arabic term, and that by itself is rich. The waiter is Lebanese mind you, in a restaurant in Lebanon. The diners were Lebanese too. All from the same Arab country. And yet he judged her. He assumed that she’s uncultured, uneducated, illiterate, ignorant…
“I’m not allowed in my own country to speak my own language?”
This video made me sad. It made me feel ashamed. Ashamed of the fact that I was just last night boasting to dad about how my mate told me that he thinks my French accent is impeccable! Ashamed of the fact that instead of fixing my first language, I’m looking forward to learn a fifth (Japanese). Ashamed that my favourite hobby is reading yet I can’t read novels in my mother tongue. And I cried. This might sound like I’m exaggerating but I did in fact cry as I typed the last words of this post.
Ironically enough, the course entitled History of the English Language has made me gain interest in the Arabic language and wish to empower myself through it. And I will make actual progress.