English: The open source language

English: The open source language

No matter how heavy the accent, I’m always duly impressed by anyone who has learned English well. While it’s my mother tongue, it is, for all purposes, a piece of crap language. As the confusing result of a collision between German and French 1,000 years ago, it is one of the most illogical, rule-breaking, non-nonsensical languages in the world. Naturally, I only realize this after working on learning two other languages which have quite strict rules and are indeed written as they are spoken. I think that most native English speakers see little problem with how inconsistent the language is, despite the fact they can’t stick to these inconsistencies themselves.

All the bashing aside, there is one rather fortunate outcome in all of this: you can pretty much do whatever the hell you want with the language. This doing whatever you want often translates in to words and phrases that are adopted in to some “official” form of the language. I compare this to and even posit quite firmly that this makes English an open source language. Of course instead of software developers working on their chunk and committing it to the overall flow of the project, every single individual in the world who speaks English contributes to the constant evolution of the language. I mean, just only 50 years ago, “gay” had a very different meaning than it does today and words like, “internet” didn’t even exist until 20 years ago. This is the double edged sword of it all in that, you can toss in whatever you want, but at the same time, there’s no project manager making sure that it all checks out. I’m not sure if this equates to a good or bad thing, but as English has become the “world’s language”, I guess it hasn’t stymied the spread of the language.

It’s with African speakers of English where I find some of the coolest changes to the language though. There are many examples, but this is one that sticks out:

Today I visited one of my favorite spots in Nairobi. As I was leaving, the staffer said, “Don’t get so lost.” In America, that phrase would result in the other party saying, “Huh?!”
What the other person meant was, “Don’t wait so long before you return next time!”

It’s more to the point and I feel works a great deal better than how an American would say it and if you think it’s confusing, it’s just because you’re not used to it. If you were to hear it often, it wouldn’t require any thought. I feel that it is an improvement to the language, contributed to the greater “source”. Of course if you want more examples, go here where, being the recipient of countless ! emails (I usually turn off that column in Outlook), I really like, “Now now” to actually mean in the immediate now.

I’ve heard that “roundabouts” are called “staylefties” in Tanzania, which for those in lefthand driving countries is just as good a word as “roundabout”. It came about because Tanzanians assumed that was the word for them as “Stay Left” was shown before the entry to each one.
Another example from Kenya is here:

“He” or “She” = “This one…”, especially when referring to one’s friends. As in: “This one likes to eat ugali,” or “This one has cut his finger.” This is actually said by adults and kids alike, and I have found myself adopting the expression readily. The manager, Eunice, might tell us: “By the way, this one is very smart,” or “Oh yes, this one, he likes to cause trouble.”

While I have been long familiar with using genders in a language due to Spanish studies, it was only once I studied Croatian where I found out about the “neuter” gender in a language. It’s really extremely useful as it allows you to specify a noun without adding gender. For instance, “baby” is “bebe” in Croatian, a neuter word, which makes sense because when you just look at a baby, it’s often hard to tell the gender immediately. The above example is great and there is a reason that the author finds herself using it, because it works.

In Mali, I’m not sure how the original phrase is in Bambara, but I’ve often see, “It’s for a long time…” as the greeting to an email. I assume that it must be along the lines for the “Don’t get so lost.” phrase. Again, it’s something of a shortened version of “Haven’t heard from you in awhile, what’s up?”

My point is that instead of accepting these changes to English, we (as Americans anyways) mock the differences instead of seeing that something is a vastly superior change to the language. For instance saying, “y’all” or “you guys” is mocked because these phrases are from the South or the street respectively, when they are in fact an attempt to but back the second person plural that should have never, never, never been removed from English. These “mispronunciations” really aren’t what people think a good deal of the time. They are in fact changes to the source of English that should be incorporated in, committed, and used.

2 Replies to “English: The open source language”

  1. Actually, the Tanzanian roundabout is called ‘keepilefti’ …. or in Swahili orthography which ingeniously spells words strictly as they are spoken: ‘kipilefti’!!! NB: the i at the end of ‘keep’ and ‘left’ is due to the fact that basically no Swahili (Bantu?) word ends on a consonant, and consequentially would be terribly hard to pronounce for most Tanzanians. Other fun Swahili ‘anglicisms’ are: benki, gari (car), hoteli, wikendi, chipsi, kosi (course), tenki …. and many more I just can’t think of at the moment!

  2. Wow, thanks for the info as well as the correction on the roundabout. My Swahili is quite well, nascent with the word I know best being ‘mzungu’ :) Hope to learn more in the future.

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