English is a bhery phunny language, bhakts! Just ask your leaders

While Modi Bhakts this week sought to correct Rahul Gandhi’s English, they have amnesia when it comes to English usage by their leaders, the tallest of whom addressed Mrs Sirisena as M.R.S. Sirisena

Former Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena’s wife was addressed as M.R.S Sirisena instead of Mrs Sirisena by PM Modi in 2015 in a huge gaffe
Former Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena’s wife was addressed as M.R.S Sirisena instead of Mrs Sirisena by PM Modi in 2015 in a huge gaffe

Sujata Anandan

Admittedly English is a phoren language to most of us and undoubtedly the Bhakts, but at least the NRIs among them have no excuse for getting gender, singular-plural, past-present tense or even past participles wrong. Sitting with a Wren and Martin beside them always might be a good idea.

Messing up spellings, gender and tense however seems to be a uniquely right-wing accomplishment, even in countries where English should not be an alien language. Remember the then US President Donald Trump tweeting about journalists who "pour" over his tweets when he meant “pore" and Harry Potter writer JK Rowling going into spasms of laughter pointing out that error and giving him the right spelling. Miriam-Webster dictionary was also constrained then to tweet the right spelling and meaning of "pore over", which is study or go through carefully, rather than "pour over" which is not like pouring tea - for you only pour tea. But it could be like pouring milk all over your cornflakes or pouring water over all your hopes and desires - two very different things, if the Bhakts can discern - I do hope they get my drift.

Their supreme leader too is spelling-challenged, mixing up STRENGTH and STREANH, presuming the latter is truly an English word which, to date, does not appear in any English language dictionary – I checked all at my disposal but strangely could not find the word in any of them.

The Bhakts’ reaction towards Rahul Gandhi's English this week reminded me of this snobbish British classmate of mine at the institute in Paris where I did a mid-career course in journalism. She had spelt 'catastrophe' as ‘catastrophy'. As there were both Francophones and Anglophones at the institute, it was left to fellow students to check each others' use of language and grammar while our professors only fact-checked our reports. She refused to accept my correction of the spelling- because I was Indian and should not have been speaking - or writing – near perfect English unlike some of the British themselves. We went through all editions of all dictionaries – Canadian, Australian apart from British and American editions of Chambers, Oxford, Miriam- Webster and Random House, the best among them available at the institute. Each one gave us only 'catastrophe', no one spelt it as 'catastrophy', even as I chased after her pleading, “Jane, Jane! I come from a country where there are so many catastrophes that I have reason to know that word!”

She refused to listen until we were through all the dictionaries whereupon she pulled out her own pocket Oxford dictionary from her bag and said, rather loftily, “I am sure my dictionary will give me the Y“. Sadly, that day it refused to co-operate with its owner and still gave her only the E, whereupon she at least had the grace to concede defeat and acknowledge that at least one Indian had better English than one Brit, however supercilious and arrogant.

Trump and Jane both remind me of the Bhakts who have been rather unsuccessfully lampooning Rahul Gandhi for tweeting that India remembers 'her' flying Sikh while condoling the death of Milkha Singh. Bhakts pounced on his knowledge or rather his lack of knowledge of English. Some were polite, others were rude, some downright abusive in seeking to correct his use of the feminine gender for India. It should be ‘ his’ and not ‘her’, they patronizingly commented.

For Bhakts who wear their nationalism on their sleeve, I wonder why they did not realise that India is our motherland and is called Bharat Maata and a maata is always a woman, for a mother, by the nature of creation, can never be a man. Or that nations all over the world, barring Germany during the Nazis who called it Fatherland, are always referred to as motherland. Or was that faux pas deliberate– aimed at changing the gender of the nation from Bharat Maata to Bharat Pita and that is why they insisted he should have referred to India as he rather than a she? Or was it simply that they confused the genders of Milkha Singh, the subject matter of the tweet, with that of Bharat Maata? I am truly 'confujed', as the bhakts would say!

Whatever they may have been thinking, I do wonder, however, at the confidence of bhakts in correcting the English of someone educated at Harvard and Cambridge while they maintain a studious silence over gaffes like STREANH or when Mrs Sirisena was confidently addressed as 'M.R.S. Sirisena' by Narendra Modi.

Which brings me to Bollywood stars Amitabh Bachchan and Dharmendra who, at different times in different films, labelled English as a “funny" language -- t-o-u-g-h is tuff, r-o-u-g-h is ruff so why is b-o-u-g-h not buff but pronounced as bow? That is not the case with French, Spanish or any other language where every word is pronounced as it is written where vowels will have universally the same sound while in English, as Dharmendra famously said, why are 'to' and 'do' too and doo but 'go' 'is goe and not goo?

These are the intricacies of the English language that defeat bhakts who need to polish up their pidgin language with dictionaries at hand 24x7. According to an editorial in The Times (of London) some years ago, most Indians speak and write English better than the vast majority of the British themselves because we are taught from text books by teachers to whom the language is not a native tongue. But to many of us it is. That is why my classmate Jane was flummoxed to be beaten by a mere Indian and Rahul Gandhi is better than the bhakts in terms of the use of tense, gender and other grammatical intricacies.

Actually, even his Hindi is far better than his father's because, I believe, both the Nehru-Gandhi siblings learnt to speak the language from Teji Bachchan, Amitabh Bachchan's mother who is said to have tutored Indira Gandhi too. So far, in speech and writing, I have not seen Rahul Gandhi make any mistake, much as the bhakts might try to ferret out one, unlike Modi's gaffes in both the written and spoken word, at least in English.

But that is no cause to lampoon him for. After all, it is not the native tongue to most of us, bhakts included. We should actually applaud anyone, even outside the political sphere making an attempt - like actress Zarina Wahab who once, in an interview, said “I am very catchy. I catch things fast!" Or a party worker of a particular candidate who during a hot, summer election campaign offered me lunch in a cool, air-conditioned restaurant and reassured me, “Don't worry, Madam. Even I am a vegetable” !!!

I accepted graciously the vegetarian fare, chary of hurting his feelings and nary telling him I was no vegetable but certainly a vegetarian. Unlike the brains of some bhakts that have most certainly turned into vegetables, possibly for more reasons than just the English language!

(The writer is an author and columnist. Views are personal)

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Published: 20 Jun 2021, 12:15 PM