Tuesday, April 20, 2021

The Queen’s or Uncle Tom’s way?

Botswana journalists, English students and teachers are caught up in the English language’s orthographic warfare between United Kingdom and United States ÔÇô Writes MESH MOETI

How many times have you stood in front of your computer after a hard day’s worth of writing only to see lines of red underlining generous portions of your text? You know time for a spell check has reared its ugly head again.

Is it “colour” or “color”? “Centre” or “center”? Is it a matter for the rest of us to just let the American and Briton to “labor” and “labour” over?

Caught yet again in between the English language’s orthographic warfare between the United Kingdom and the United States? A good number of us are. Evidence is strewn across many a printed page ÔÇô an Uncle Tom’s way of spelling here and the Queen’s received orthography there.

Although some linguists argue that the few differences that exist between British and American English tend to enrich communication rather than take away from it, Thato Chwaane, a reporter with the daily Mmegi newspaper, has learnt that settling on the right way to spell the English language can be a daunting task in today’s increasingly integrated world.

With word forms such as “program” and “programme” bandied about interchangeably, the result can only be confusion, especially for the younger generation, Chwaane has observed.
“American schools are setting up in the country and the impact of their influence may already be felt by the young students.

For us who were schooled in British English, a lack of consistency would not help effective communication. The best bet would be for one to set the computer to British English so that when you do the spell check, the corrected text is consistent.

Without knowledge of the resource to set the computer to the required English, we may find ourselves blaming it on technology,” she says.
Obviously not everyone is aware of this seemingly revolutionary facility in today’s computer that helps the helpless writer stick to their own preferred English.

Allen Fitzpatrick, an Information Technology (IT) specialist whose client base includes some of the country’s biggest newspapers, notes that although the options are there in many of today’s increasingly user-friendly computer applications to program the computer as Chwaane would, technophobes still find it a problem (And there could only be as many in a country whose teachers graduate from college computer-illiterate).

“They will complain and get frustrated that the computer is not working properly. I don’t think that this is a big problem today as a lot of computer users are increasingly becoming aware of the feature. It is not much of an issue now,” he explains.

Only once in a while, would Chwaane hear a reader complaining about the inconsistent use of the two English orthographies and express fear that their children may be misled to divert attention away from the country’s colonial linguistic heritage that is the Queen’s English also referred to as Oxford English. But the problem does not seem to be just about the odd spell check on the part of the writer and the American made IT applications. There seem to be far greater forces at play.

The writer in post-colonial Botswana may be excused for the spelling switch, as they are only a product of their surroundings.

The Queen’s English, which is spoken by only about five percent of the UK’s population, seems to be greatly influenced, along with the rest of the world’s languages, by the American spoken version of English ÔÇô courtesy of American television, music, film, literature and other forms of mass media. It follows, therefore, that young people are exposed to a lot of American vocabulary and phrases, which they easily internalise and use as their own.

“Most of us are not linguists and are not mindful or well conversant with the rules of the English language. The code switching is inevitable because even some of the textbooks and novels that are used in classrooms are American. Although I am not an English teacher, I am aware of the fact that the problem is prevalent amongst students.

They follow the American popular culture. Their teachers also follow and idolise Americans as well,” says Moreri Moroka, a language expert and teacher at Maoka Junior Secondary School in Gaborone.
Not one with ready solutions, he, however, offers that a clear-cut policy on which English of the two domineering dialects to stick to, can come in handy to arrest the linguistic gumbo holding sway in the school corridors.

Tiro Sebina, a University of Botswana (UB) English lecturer, has a way around the problem. He would neither place one language form in a hierarchy over others nor advocate for one form of spelling over the other.

“I teach my students to appreciate the various forms of English out there. I require of them to be consistent. If one decides to use the American way of spelling, the whole text should be consistent with the form unless the misspelling is done for creative purposes,” he says.

He rather celebrates the diversity of the English forms found in cultures around the world. He believes in the plurality of the forms as opposed to having a single universally agreed standard way of spelling the English language.

“We are richer with diversity. There is no need to police language in such a way. Even here at UB we are influenced by different schools of linguistic thought,” he says.

Faced with the dilemma of not knowing whether to be loyal to the country’s colonial master’s way of English spelling or succumb to America’s constantly overarching cultural hegemony, Batswana seem to be at a linguistic crossroad of sorts.

Once upon a time, these orthographic differences were not invented until Uncle Tom decided to shed off his colonial past, celebrate his self-determination and independence. He craved for something practical that he could call his own that this spelling headache set in.

For instance, the British have the tendency to keep the spelling of many words of French origin whereas Americans try to spell more closely to the way they pronounce words and they remove letters not sounded; for example, colour/color, harbor/harbour. For Botswana what could be the way to navigate herself out of the quagmire to a comfortable English writing position?

“The form of communication space is what should guide what language form to use. Your target audience matters very much here,” offers Sebina.

Taking sides with either of the two nations’s way of spelling may not help anyone with an eye on exploiting the opportunities that the growing integration of the world has to offer today, it seems.

Mastery of the two spelling forms seems the sure way to go, given that American English seems to be dominating international business, thanks to the place being the base for a lot of global companies.

It is following that same line of argument that even Fitzpatrick would tell you that some clients would be offended if you used one way of the two English spellings over the other.

Know both so as to know when to go 100 Downing Street or cock your pen by Bush’s lap at the White House, and then you would truly know what side of your bread is buttered.

Only until that happy day when the worlds that matter sit to a table and broker a compromised uniform orthographic version of the standard English language will the dilemma leave the technophobe’s side. (FPN)


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