A few clarifications about my rant on Swahili identity

Following my rather rant-y post about Swahili identity the other day I got a couple of interesting criticisms that I think are worth posting. They have to do with my description of English and my writing style in talking about imperialism. Both the messages below are from friends whose opinions I respect a lot.

English: a madmans mansion

English: a madman's mansion

English as a crappy, mongrel language of imperialism

[W]hile you make a good point of the imperialism of the English language, I am careful not to disparage any tongue, even those that seem “crappy” and “mongrel.” Actually, what makes English interesting, I think, is its versatility, which probably emanates from its mongrel nature. Southern English, Scottish, Kiwi English, Ghanaian English, Black Urban English, Jamaican English, Black South African English, each have distinct rhythms, far afield from the cruder dialects heard in Liverpool, The east End of London, and parts of the US. The many forms a language takes as it migrates far from its “home” speak to the diversity of human experience, worldview, and glottal variation. It’s not the language’s fault-. New Zealand is a cool place (except that they allowed the Springboks to tour in 1981–until citizen protests stopped it). And Ireland hasn’t invaded anybody in a while. Well…….
– Email to the LGD

This is a great paragraph that I wholeheartedly agree with. I guess I meant my disparaging of English as a self-effacing joke — a stab at those who almost subconsciously promote the language as if it is superior to others, when, for instance, they blame underdevelopment on speaking Swahili. That’s not the language’s fault.

The fact is, I love English, precisely because of its openness and roguish character. It’s an anarchical language, a beautiful Frankenstein with no allegiances. If classical Arabic and German and Russian (I do not speak the latter two, just sayin’) are vast, immaculate and symmetrical mansions, whose entrances have well-defended drawbridges, then English is a castle built by a madman, a Winchester Mystery House with people climbing in and out of the windows at all times of the day and night.

(Cool. I’ve been wanting to write that paragraph for a while.)

Anyway, it’s that character of English that lets us have Faulkner and Joyce. And maybe all languages are like that to some degree — they certainly are all fluid and changing — but being the language of an empire makes English particularly unstable.

The crappy/mongrel part is really about the political context in which English might be foisted on people, either as a part of explicit policy (Ireland) or because of power dynamics (possibly Tanzania).

The scold-y, stridently liberal didacticism tone

I liked [the post] and found the argument interesting and well put. I see your Berkley-ism strongly coloring the way you make points like this one: “It may be (let me rephrase: it is) completely unfair and the result of a history of imperialism and exploitation…” Sentences like that give me pause as a reader, because they sound overly apologetic and evoke of a certain kind of strident liberal didacticism. I think there are ways to express the same thought and idea without sounding like you’re sorry and somehow personally apologizing for the course of history. I think it’s “unfair” that’s problematic — everything’s unfair and the product of exploitation. Consider some alternative way of phrasing the argument, like “Random chance and imperial history have made English the world’s lingua franca of power and not, say, Dutch or Chinese. Any savvy modernizing nation benefits when its workforce learns English; nations on the global economy’s periphery can maneuver to benefit from that global order even while decrying its unfairness and criticizing its moral hypocrisies.” A similar fuzziness comes through at the end, when you write, somewhat in the manner of a scold, that foreigners shouldn’t tell Tanzanians what to do, and then proceed to declare what they should do: teach English, but of their own accord, not because someone like you told them to!
– Email to the LGD from former prof

The proposed rewrite would indeed be much better. Being a kneejerk, over-simplifying anti-imperialist is almost as tiresome and irritating as being a kneejerk, oversimplifying imperialist. In terms of the use of “should,” I guess what I should have said is that should Tanzania choose to focus on English, it should have the option to do so on its own terms when it chooses to, not because someone else tells the country it should.

Seriously, though, the scoldiness in the tone really comes from my exasperation with the readiness to use “culture” as a stand-in or replacement for where the word “race” would have been used in times when genetic determinism was an accepted theory. Blaming poverty on culture is as unedifying as blaming it on race; further, both spring from the same perspective of assumed superiority.

Anyway, thanks for the comments, everyone.

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