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The Significance Of Accents

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by Vijaya Chandrasoma

I have traveled more than anyone else, and I have noticed that even the angels speak English with an accent – Mark Twain

English is now recognized as the global language, widely spoken in most parts of the world. It is certainly the universal language of international trade and commerce. However, distinctive accents in the use of English in different parts of the world make English sound as if different languages are being spoken.

Countries originally settled by Anglo-Saxons, like the United States of America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, have, with some variations, recognized English as their national language. English of the original immigrants, blended with those of the hundreds of millions who emigrated to the New World from Europe, and the more recent arrivals from the colonies of the old British Empire in Asia, Africa and the West Indies.

However, the nations colonized by the British, especially those countries in the Indian Subcontinent, boasted of a proud history of their own languages and cultures. Their willing embrace of the English was necessarily merged with the sounds of their native languages, Hindi, Urdu, Sinhala and Tamil. The language resulting from the blending of these proud languages with that of the invader unfortunately gave birth to an English accent which is an unpleasant onslaught on the senses.

The 20th century saw a flood of immigrants to Europe, Canada and the USA. Religious persecution, poverty and two World Wars were the main reasons for immigration to the USA; the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free”, economic refugees seeking a better future for themselves and their children. The end of World War II and the resultant labor shortages saw an influx of immigrants to Europe. Post-war Britain facing labor shortages enticed immigrants from their defunct empire to the nation we had been brainwashed to revere as the “Motherland”, to do the menial jobs that the natives felt were beneath their dignity.

Of course, accents played a part within the host countries themselves. In England, the accepted accent till the late 20th century for diplomats, the upper crust and the BBC was the Oxford/Cambridge variety, cultivated in the prestigious public (read private, expensive, snobbish) schools in the land. English is spoken with a multitude of accents depending on the locale in which you live. The Brummie (Birmingham) accent is different from the London cockney, the Liverpudlian from the West Country; and if you strike up a conversation with a Scotsman at a pub in Aberdeen, you will find it hard put to understand the drift of the conversation, especially had you slaked your thirst with that golden elixir, the hallmark of the nation.

The upper classes of colonial and post-colonial Sri Lanka, educated at Christian private mission schools, with the single exception of one government school in Colombo, often scoffed condescendingly at the English spoken in Sinhala and Tamil villages. As the hoary and offensive joke goes, when referring to an inhabitant from the Southern City of Galle, “You can take the boy out of Gaul, but you can’t take the Goal out of the boy!”

I emigrated to the USA in the late 80s, during the peak of the JVP and LTTE strife. I was amused, sometimes perturbed, to observe American attitudes to the accents of recent immigrants. The natives of the 50 states of this vast and powerful nation spoke English in their different accents; but American English had pretty much evolved into a uniform dialect.

As Theodore Roosevelt said at the turn of the 20th century, “We have room for but one language, the English language, for we intend to see that the crucible turns our people out as Americans, and not as dwellers in a polyglot boarding house”. He has been proved largely prescient, though the recent influx of immigrants from Latin America and Asian countries has made for vast tracts of communities who speak only their own language, with a smattering of English to get by. This will change when their offspring join a new generation of Americans.

Generally, Americans have a combination of both inferiority and superiority complexes about the accent used in their nation when compared to the languages spoken in the “Old Country”. Each set of new immigrants till the middle of the 20th century added something of their own language/culture to the dialect now accepted as American English. First generation immigrants, however, usually retain the accents of the language they spoke at home, although many try to emulate the accents of the host country to demonstrate their eagerness to assimilate. Americans have formed their own conceptions, often stereotyped and fallacious, of the characteristics these various accents suggest.

Americans are generally in awe of those speaking with a British accent. Never mind the accent is OxCam or cockney, Welsh or Scots, these accents are often falsely regarded as evidence of an upper class education, even a status symbol. A French accent is admired as the mellifluous language of love and romance; such an accent, when accompanied with a gallant kiss on the hand, will make any lady, not just American, swoon. The Australian accent, which to my ears is just a variation of the lowly Cockney, is also held in high regard in the United States, while the guttural German is thought to be indicative of cold, even brutal, efficiency. Other European accents are held in varying degrees of esteem, depending on their national stereotypes. One accent that is universally enjoyed is the Jamaican, which opens up fantasies of warm beaches, cocktails with little umbrellas, reggae and calypso music and wild parties with a surfeit of sex and pot, lots of pot.

Sadly, the accent held in the least esteem are the discordant sounds of the English language spoken by first generation immigrants from the Indian Subcontinent, contemptuously personified by Apu in the popular TV show, “The Simpsons”. It has also been disdainfully described as an accent, when used by a man pursuing a woman, that would be the least likely to help him getting laid. Unless, of course, the lady in pursuit hailed from the Subcontinent, in which event a mere accent would likely prove to be least of the problems.

Many of these immigrants from the Subcontinent are highly educated professionals, medical, engineering, and the like. Their education has often been “refined” by the hallowed schools of learning in England. They take inordinate pride in their distinctive and cultured accents, and many refuse to parrot the pidgin American of their host nation. As an example, my brother emigrated to California over 40 years ago. He received his education up to MD General Medicine (Sri Lanka) and MRCP (UK), in Colombo. After a brief period of training at the University of Southern California, he has been teaching pathology at the USC Medical School for over 40 years, as the Head of Surgical Pathology of the most prestigious university in Los Angeles. Like me, he talks with the same English accent we learned at Royal College, which neither of us has been able to shed; me, after six years in England as a student and over 20 years in the United States, and my brother, after 40 years’ teaching pathology to American medical students. I asked him once why he didn’t adapt his accent to better communicate with his students, why he still used words like ‘nought’ and ‘fortnight’ which are unfamiliar to Americans. His typically arrogant Sri Lankan response was: “I am not going to change the way I speak. Let the buggers look up any words they don’t understand!”

Americans, and it must be confessed, even many of these educated immigrants from the Subcontinent, look down upon the grating accents of recent immigrants from the Indian Subcontinent, usually economic refugees of the “lower orders” with little education and fewer skills. They do their utmost to parrot the American accent in a desperate desire to blend in, efforts which unfortunately result in a bad accent made even more jarring.

When I first arrived in America in 1990, I met with some Sri Lankans living in the twilight zone of the undocumented immigrant, making great efforts to pursue the elusive American Dream. One of them, fresh out of LAX, heard a dog barking, and exclaimed, in Sinhala, with an air of wonderment, “Aday, machang, even the dogs here bark with an American accent”.

American prejudice against the accents of immigrants from the Subcontinent is a really yet another not so subtle expression of racism. I have personally suffered this form of discrimination, when insensitive American co-workers tried to mimic my accent in an effort to diminish me. My advanced age at the time (49), and lack of American work experience compelled me to take lowly, often menial jobs in an effort to put food on the table, secure medical insurance and pay the rent. But I never let these taunts take me down, because I knew I was better than them. I am not being arrogant or conceited, it was a low bar I had to clear. However, this kind of cruel mimicry can have a devastating effect on children, especially those in their formative years.

In Los Angeles, we made friends with an Indian family living in our apartment complex, who were in a similar situation. They had an only daughter, a beautiful and talented little girl, who attended the junior high school in the neighborhood. My friend and I shared the chore of taking our kids (my younger son had, during those first few days, enrolled in the local Community College) to school and picking them up at the end of the day, depending on our work schedules. I noticed that my friend’s little daughter looked very glum, sometimes close to tears when I picked her up after school. After a couple of weeks, concerned as only a father can feel for another’s obsessive need to protect his daughter, I decided to cross traditional lines of privacy and asked my friend if there were any problems with his daughter’s schooling. I thought maybe she had problems with adjustment to a new culture and a different curriculum. My friend broke down and told me the awful truth. Their daughter kept sobbing herself to sleep every night, in deep distress; she was being mocked for her Indian accent by the school bullies. He and his wife were at their wits’ end, even thinking of abandoning their quest for the American Dream and going back to India.

We talked to the scared, sensitive little girl, told her that she was better than any kid in the school; that she was better read and educated in the English language than most; that she should study hard and go on to complete her studies at the best university in the country. She tearfully agreed to try.

And try she did! She has exceeded even our most extravagant expectations. She gritted her teeth, bravely overcame the relentless taunts, won the English prize at the end of her junior school career, finished high school as its Valedictorian and earned a Summa cum Laude bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley. She didn’t stop there. She was accepted to Yale Law School, and is now a lawyer, the General Counsel at one of the nation’s leading philanthropic Foundations.

We have kept in touch with our Indian friends, and I am so enormously proud of their daughter’s achievements just as if she were my very own. In spite of the sad fact that she now speaks English with a perfect American accent.

Which is not to say that I haven’t been extraordinarily blessed with my two sons. They also took advantage of the wonderful educational opportunities available during the Clinton years to kids who were willing to work hard, and equipped themselves with degrees from equally prestigious universities. My pride in their achievements knows no bounds. And they have the added virtue of speaking English with just a trace of the accent we all learned at our alma mater, Royal College, Colombo.


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Islamophobia and the threat to democratic development

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There’s an ill more dangerous and pervasive than the Coronavirus that’s currently sweeping Sri Lanka. That is the fear to express one’s convictions. Across the public sector of the country in particular many persons holding high office are stringently regulating and controlling the voices of their consciences and this bodes ill for all and the country.

The corrupting impact of fear was discussed in this column a couple of weeks ago when dealing with the military coup in Myanmar. It stands to the enduring credit of ousted Myanmarese Head of Government Aung San Suu Kyi that she, perhaps for the first time in the history of modern political thought, singled out fear, and not power, as the principal cause of corruption within the individual; powerful or otherwise.

To be sure, power corrupts but the corrupting impact of fear is graver and more devastating. For instance, the fear in a person holding ministerial office or in a senior public sector official, that he would lose position and power as a result of speaking out his convictions and sincere beliefs on matters of the first importance, would lead to a country’s ills going unaddressed and uncorrected.

Besides, the individual concerned would be devaluing himself in the eyes of all irrevocably and revealing himself to be a person who would be willing to compromise his moral integrity for petty worldly gain or a ‘mess of pottage’. This happens all the while in Lankan public life. Some of those who have wielded and are wielding immense power in Sri Lanka leave very much to be desired from these standards.

It could be said that fear has prevented Sri Lanka from growing in every vital respect over the decades and has earned for itself the notoriety of being a directionless country.

All these ills and more are contained in the current controversy in Sri Lanka over the disposal of the bodies of Covid victims, for example. The Sri Lankan polity has no choice but to abide by scientific advice on this question. Since authorities of the standing of even the WHO have declared that the burial of the bodies of those dying of Covid could not prove to be injurious to the wider public, the Sri Lankan health authorities could go ahead and sanction the burying of the bodies concerned. What’s preventing the local authorities from taking this course since they claim to be on the side of science? Who or what are they fearing? This is the issue that’s crying out to be probed and answered.

Considering the need for absolute truthfulness and honesty on the part of all relevant persons and quarters in matters such as these, the latter have no choice but to resign from their positions if they are prevented from following the dictates of their consciences. If they are firmly convinced that burials could bring no harm, they are obliged to take up the position that burials should be allowed.

If any ‘higher authority’ is preventing them from allowing burials, our ministers and officials are conscience-bound to renounce their positions in protest, rather than behave compromisingly and engage in ‘double think’ and ‘double talk’. By adopting the latter course they are helping none but keeping the country in a state of chronic uncertainty, which is a handy recipe for social instabiliy and division.

In the Sri Lankan context, the failure on the part of the quarters that matter to follow scientific advice on the burials question could result in the aggravation of Islamophobia, or hatred of the practitioners of Islam, in the country. Sri Lanka could do without this latter phobia and hatred on account of its implications for national stability and development. The 30 year war against separatist forces was all about the prevention by military means of ‘nation-breaking’. The disastrous results for Sri Lanka from this war are continuing to weigh it down and are part of the international offensive against Sri Lanka in the UNHCR.

However, Islamophobia is an almost world wide phenomenon. It was greatly strengthened during Donald Trump’s presidential tenure in the US. While in office Trump resorted to the divisive ruling strategy of quite a few populist authoritarian rulers of the South. Essentially, the manoeuvre is to divide and rule by pandering to the racial prejudices of majority communities.

It has happened continually in Sri Lanka. In the initial post-independence years and for several decades after, it was a case of some populist politicians of the South whipping-up anti-Tamil sentiments. Some Tamil politicians did likewise in respect of the majority community. No doubt, both such quarters have done Sri Lanka immeasurable harm. By failing to follow scientific advice on the burial question and by not doing what is right, Sri Lanka’s current authorities are opening themselves to the charge that they are pandering to religious extremists among the majority community.

The murderous, destructive course of action adopted by some extremist sections among Muslim communities world wide, including of course Sri Lanka, has not earned the condemnation it deserves from moderate Muslims who make-up the preponderant majority in the Muslim community. It is up to moderate opinion in the latter collectivity to come out more strongly and persuasively against religious extremists in their midst. It will prove to have a cementing and unifying impact among communities.

It is not sufficiently appreciated by governments in the global South in particular that by voicing for religious and racial unity and by working consistently towards it, they would be strengthening democratic development, which is an essential condition for a country’s growth in all senses.

A ‘divided house’ is doomed to fall; this is the lesson of history. ‘National security’ cannot be had without human security and peaceful living among communities is central to the latter. There cannot be any ‘double talk’ or ‘politically correct’ opinions on this question. Truth and falsehood are the only valid categories of thought and speech.

Those in authority everywhere claiming to be democratic need to adopt a scientific outlook on this issue as well. Studies conducted on plural societies in South Asia, for example, reveal that the promotion of friendly, cordial ties among communities invariably brings about healing among estranged groups and produces social peace. This is the truth that is waiting to be acted upon.

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Pakistan’s love of Sri Lanka

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By Sanjeewa Jayaweera

It was on 3rd January 1972 that our family arrived in Karachi from Moscow. Our departure from Moscow had been delayed for a few weeks due to the military confrontation between Pakistan and India. It ended on 16th December 1971. After that, international flights were not permitted for some time.

The contrast between Moscow and Karachi was unbelievable. First and foremost, Moscow’s temperature was near minus 40 degrees centigrade, while in Karachi, it was sunny and a warm 28 degrees centigrade. However, what struck us most was the extreme warmth with which the airport authorities greeted our family. As my father was a diplomat, we were quickly ushered to the airport’s VIP Lounge. We were in transit on our way to Rawalpindi, the airport serving the capital of Islamabad.

We quickly realized that the word “we are from Sri Lanka” opened all doors just as saying “open sesame” gained entry to Aladdin’s cave! The broad smile, extreme courtesy, and genuine warmth we received from the Pakistani people were unbelievable.

This was all to do with Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike’s decision to allow Pakistani aircraft to land in Colombo to refuel on the way to Dhaka in East Pakistan during the military confrontation between Pakistan and India. It was a brave decision by Mrs Bandaranaike (Mrs B), and the successive governments and Sri Lanka people are still enjoying the fruits of it. Pakistan has been a steadfast and loyal supporter of our country. They have come to our assistance time and again in times of great need when many have turned their back on us. They have indeed been an “all-weather” friend of our country.

Getting back to 1972, I was an early beneficiary of Pakistani people’s love for Sri Lankans. I failed the entrance exam to gain entry to the only English medium school in Islamabad! However, when I met the Principal, along with my father, he said, “Sanjeewa, although you failed the entrance exam, I will this time make an exception as Sri Lankans are our dear friends.” After that, the joke around the family dinner table was that I owed my education in Pakistan to Mrs B!

At school, my brother and I were extended a warm welcome and always greeted “our good friends from Sri Lanka.” I felt when playing cricket for our college; our runs were cheered more loudly than of others.

One particular incident that I remember well was when the Embassy received a telex from the Foreign inistry. It requested that our High Commissioner seek an immediate meeting with the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Mr Zulifikar Ali Bhutto (ZB), and convey a message from Mrs B. The message requested that an urgent shipment of rice be dispatched to Sri Lanka as there would be an imminent rice shortage. As the Ambassador was not in the station, the responsibility devolved on my father.

It usually takes about a week or more to get an audience with the Prime Minister (PM) of a foreign country due to their busy schedule. However, given the urgency, my father spoke to the Foreign Ministry’s Permanent Sectary, who fortunately was our neighbour and sought an urgent appointment. My father received a call from the PM’s secretary around 10 P.M asking him to come over to the PM’s residence. My father met ZB around midnight. ZB was about to retire to bed and, as such, was in his pyjamas and gown enjoying a cigar! He had greeted my father and had asked, “Mr Jayaweera, what can we do for great friend Madam Bandaranaike?. My father conveyed the message from Colombo and quietly mentioned that there would be riots in the country if there is no rice!

ZB had immediately got the Food Commissioner of Pakistan on the line and said, “I want a shipload of rice to be in Colombo within the next 72 hours!” The Food Commissioner reverted within a few minutes, saying that nothing was available and the last export shipment had left the port only a few hours ago to another country. ZB had instructed to turn the ship around and send it to Colombo. This despite protests from the Food Commissioner about terms and conditions of the Letter of Credit prohibiting non-delivery. Sri Lanka got its delivery of rice!

The next was the visit of Mrs B to Pakistan. On arrival in Rawalpindi airport, she was given a hero’s welcome, which Pakistan had previously only offered to President Gaddafi of Libya, who financially backed Pakistan with his oil money. That day, I missed school and accompanied my parents to the airport. On our way, we witnessed thousands of people had gathered by the roadside to welcome Mrs B.

When we walked to the airport’s tarmac, thousands of people were standing in temporary stands waving Sri Lanka and Pakistan flags and chanting “Sri Lanka Pakistan Zindabad.” The noise emanating from the crowd was as loud and passionate as the cheering that the Pakistani cricket team received during a test match. It was electric!

I believe she was only the second head of state given the privilege of addressing both assemblies of Parliament. The other being Gaddafi. There was genuine affection from Mrs B amongst the people of Pakistan.

I always remember the indefatigable efforts of Mr Abdul Haffez Kardar, a cabinet minister and the President of the Pakistan Cricket Board. From around 1973 onwards, he passionately championed Sri Lanka’s cause to be admitted as a full member of the International Cricket Council (ICC) and granted test status. Every year, he would propose at the ICC’s annual meeting, but England and Australia’s veto kept us out until 1981.

I always felt that our Cricket Board made a mistake by not inviting Pakistan to play our inaugural test match. We should have appreciated Mr Kardar and Pakistan’s efforts. In 1974 the Pakistan board invited our team for a tour involving three test matches and a few first-class games. Most of those who played in our first test match was part of that tour, and no doubt gained significant exposure playing against a highly talented Pakistani team.

Several Pakistani greats were part of the Pakistan and India team that played a match soon after the Central Bank bomb in Colombo to prove that it was safe to play cricket in Colombo. It was a magnificent gesture by both Pakistan and India. Our greatest cricket triumph was in Pakistan when we won the World Cup in 1996. I am sure the players and those who watched the match on TV will remember the passionate support our team received that night from the Pakistani crowd. It was like playing at home!

I also recall reading about how the Pakistani government air freighted several Multi Barrell artillery guns and ammunition to Sri Lanka when the A rmy camp in Jaffna was under severe threat from the LTTE. This was even more important than the shipload of rice that ZB sent. This was crucial as most other countries refused to sell arms to our country during the war.

Time and again, Pakistan has steadfastly supported our country’s cause at the UNHCR. No doubt this year, too, their diplomats will work tirelessly to assist our country.

We extend a warm welcome to Mr Imran Khan, the Prime Minister of Pakistan. He is a truly inspirational individual who was undoubtedly an excellent cricketer. Since retirement from cricket, he has decided to get involved in politics, and after several years of patiently building up his support base, he won the last parliamentary elections. I hope that just as much as he galvanized Sri Lankan cricketers, his political journey would act as a catalyst for people like Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene to get involved in politics. Cricket has been called a “gentleman’s game.” Whilst politics is far from it!.

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Covid-19 health rules disregarded at entertainment venues?

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Believe me, seeing certain videos, on social media, depicting action, on the dance floor, at some of these entertainment venues, got me wondering whether this Coronavirus pandemic is REAL!

To those having a good time, at these particular venues, and, I guess, the management, as well, what the world is experiencing now doesn’t seem to be their concerned.

Obviously, such irresponsible behaviour could create more problems for those who are battling to halt the spread of Covid-19, and the new viriant of Covid, in our part of the world.

The videos, on display, on social media, show certain venues, packed to capacity – with hardly anyone wearing a mask, and social distancing…only a dream..

How can one think of social distancing while gyrating, on a dance floor, that is over crowded!

If this trend continues, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Coronavirus makes its presence felt…at such venues.

And, then, what happens to the entertainment scene, and those involved in this field, especially the musicians? No work, whatsoever!

Lots of countries have closed nightclubs, and venues, where people gather, in order to curtail the spread of this deadly virus that has already claimed the lives of thousands.

Thailand did it and the country is still having lots of restrictions, where entertainment is concerned, and that is probably the reason why Thailand has been able to control the spread of the Coronavirus.

With a population of over 69 million, they have had (so far), a little over 25,000 cases, and 83 deaths, while we, with a population of around 21 million, have over 80,000 cases, and more than 450 deaths.

I’m not saying we should do away with entertainment – totally – but we need to follow a format, connected with the ‘new normal,’ where masks and social distancing are mandatory requirements at these venues. And, dancing, I believe, should be banned, at least temporarily, as one can’t maintain the required social distance, while on the dance floor, especially after drinks.

Police spokesman DIG Ajith Rohana keeps emphasising, on TV, radio, and in the newspapers, the need to adhere to the health regulations, now in force, and that those who fail to do so would be penalised.

He has also stated that plainclothes officers would move around to apprehend such offenders.

Perhaps, he should instruct his officers to pay surprise visits to some of these entertainment venues.

He would certainly have more than a bus load of offenders to be whisked off for PCR/Rapid Antigen tests!

I need to quote what Dr. H.T. Wickremasinghe said in his article, published in The Island of Tuesday, February 16th, 2021:

“…let me conclude, while emphasising the need to continue our general public health measures, such as wearing masks, social distancing, and avoiding crowded gatherings, to reduce the risk of contact with an infected person.

“There is no science to beat common sense.”

But…do some of our folks have this thing called COMMON SENSE!

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