To Fill In the Gaps of Language Studies

Suresh canagarajah

Suresh canagarajah

The recently concluded 7th Session of the Sri Lanka Association of Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies (SLACLALS), held with a trans-national participation at the Sri Lanka Foundation, was a forum for several research papers on linguistics carried out by Sri Lankan academics / researchers probing into several aspects of English in Sri Lanka. Among the case studies presented, there was a paper which – among other things – probed into aspects of “Sri Lankan English”; where the presenter, referring to that problematic category, argued that “Sri Lankan English” has arrived at a stage where the recognition of “Sri Lankan Englishes” (as opposed to a monolith) was timely. Using the Schneider Dynamic Model (a propound which is often used to gauge the “development stage” of postcolonial New Englishes), it was argued that “Sri Lankan English” was in a position now to be identified as having its own varieties: hence, that it, like a cancer, has passed on to Stage 5 in Schneider’s chart. A claim alright – but, isn’t this Colombus all over again? The productive edge, I felt, would have been in radically questioning the postcolonial applicability of the category “Sri Lankan English”: the misleading location of a language “variety” within the straitjacket of an all encompassing notion of a homogenous the nation state.

Another ambitious paper probed into the location of the /z/ sound in the speech of Sri Lankan speakers of English. This was once again a well “searched” paper, with a detailed breakdown of the empirical and positivist routes followed in arriving at “conclusions” of sorts. At one point, the presenter submitted what some of us in the audience found to be (at its best)the kind of “empirical” generalization which one should be suspicious of: that the pronunciation of the /z/ by Sri Lankan speakers of English is determined by one’s sex (being male /female). The back benches of the audience acknowledged this with a murmur and a ‘ssss’ (or was it a /z/?), but none really followed up in the subsequent Q and A session.

My purpose will be defeated if I launch on a detailed response of the presenters’ research findings (which, as the reader may argue back, I should have done on premise). But, the sheer application of empirical research and positivist meticulousness was seen to be barrened by gaping ideological cavities, which on a better day would leave the studies in question undermined and vandalized. The very fact that “Language” – the complex and ever dynamic discourse it is, always already entangled with multiple underpinnings of power, politics and issues in representation etc – cannot be “studied” without subjecting it to gross reduction itself has a large implication for a student geared to make “statements” regarding a “variety” or two of a language.

Operating on language: the empirical mission

Operating on language: the empirical mission

Other than the will to “categorize” and identify “language” as a linear object (with stages of development, status shifts etc), the papers reflected another cardinal ideological sin which is often committed in the reliance placed on unsatisfactory models, even at the expense of their being insufficient and anomalous. An imperfect model, even with the slightest anomaly should not be used – specifically, if you are to make broad statements upon that incorporation. The empiricist’s approach to a linguistic survey would only be farcical as there can never be “empirical data” in language. It was in my first year as an undergraduate that I was first fine-tuned to the possibility that language is a context-bound transaction; and that that “contextuality” is a ever-refreshing flux. I would only laugh at a linguist whose solemn project is to record the way I may pronounce the four lettered swear word, as chance are that I will deliberately flout my response in order to make the linguist believe she has me on tape, swearing. What if I, within my “linguistic range”, pronounce the word in three different ways than one? What if my tonality changes, depending on my fatigue level? Maybe, I would voice my /z/ sound differently on Sundays, when I fantasize I am Zorro: the linguist wouldn’t know.

The Chairman of the SLACLALS organization, Professor Walter Perera, observed in his “welcome speech” how the forum – for the first time in its run – is without the presence of “yeomen” academics in the caliber of Thiru Kandiah and Ashley Halpe, who (as it was implied) have been regular participants of this programme. This, perhaps, is not relevant to the seminar alone, but also to the field of Linguistics and Language Studies as a whole. The Sri Lankan Academy, at present, is without the presence of academics in the caliber of Arjuna Parakrama, whose views in these subject areas make more sense to us today, than upon our first encounter with the man during our undergraduate days. For someone who saw Linguistics and Language Studies (as practiced in Sri Lanka) as a “fruit that cuts all ways”,  the kind of ideological issues raised by a Professor Parakrama remains the most crucial internalization of an age.

Where language is not on holiday

Where language is not on holiday

Since the English studies of our universities have a dense Linguistics/Language concentration, a critical approach to issues in Language Studies is of paramount significance. This approach should essentially be after-structuralist, with a firm re-reading of the post-colonial ground the “nation” treads. The kind of petty, putrid definitions given to that rich, irreducible transaction which we collect by the word “language” has to be freed from the clutches of ambitious theory-mongers and reactionary models. As Professor Suresh Canagarajah, at the same programme observed, if two people can communicate in one-to-one terms then “language” has already been formed, for its is a contract which cannot be justified by grammar or queer models and formulas. The politics of language should cut short its holiday and return to the university classroom.


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