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Mugging English

Mugging English
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First Published: Fri, Jan 22 2010. 08 38 PM IST

Building bridges:  Ramadan. Anoek De Groot / AFP
Building bridges: Ramadan. Anoek De Groot / AFP
Updated: Fri, Jan 22 2010. 08 38 PM IST
Mugging de Queen’s English/ is the story of my life,” says the immigrant who did not “graduate” in the UK-based Caribbean writer and poet John Agard’s excellent Listen Mr Oxford Don , which (incidentally) can be accessed on YouTube in the poet’s own rendition.
Building bridges: Ramadan. Anoek De Groot / AFP
The tradition of mugging English is a glorious one: from Mark Twain to Agard, from Raja Rao to Salman Rushdie. We know that English contains huge chunks of Germanic-Scandinavian, Norman-French and Latin, followed by hundreds of words from Arabic, Spanish, Italian, Hindustani, etc. In his latest book, Our Magnificent Bastard Language: The Untold History of English, the Manhattan-based linguist, John McWhorter, extends the argument.
He claims, and proves overwhelmingly, that even early “English” was a product of underground mugging. As the invading proto-Germanic tribes of Angles, Saxons and Jutes were pushing the earlier Celtic speakers to the “fringes” of Britain, the language that was assuming shape (or sound) was already being mugged by the “enslaved” Celts. Then came the Scandinavian Vikings, who did their bit of mugging too. The evidence, argues McWhorter, lies in English grammar—and helps explain the so-called “grammatical errors epidemic” as a “hoax”.
This is a book that should be read by anyone interested in English and languages. If I have a complaint, it has to do with McWhorter’s determination to avoid political readings of the phenomena he narrates so lucidly.
Mediating Muslim
“A mediator is a bridge, and a bridge never belongs to one side only. Thus the mediator is always a little too much on the other side for both the sides,” writes Tariq Ramadan in his just released book, What I Believe. Named by Time magazine as one of the most important innovators of the 21st century, a professor in the faculty of theology at Oxford University and the author of several books, Ramadan has been prevented from entering some Muslim countries as well as France and the US in the recent past. So he knows what he is talking about.
Ramadan comes from a practising Muslim background: The fact that his grandfather was the founder of the fundamentalist-nationalist Muslim Brotherhood is sometimes held against him in the West, despite his own boldly reformist and democratic stance. He continues to be a practising Muslim. As I stopped practising my faith in secondary school, and have no intention of practising any faith—no, not even “atheism”—in the future, I inevitably see some of the matters that he discusses differently. Yet, I agree with much of what he says, and admire his sincere, thoughtful effort even across our differences. Ramadan needs to be read by all of us who want to make sense of the world that we share.
Running through all the practical, historical and theoretical issues, there is Ramadan’s conviction that on both the “Muslim” side and the “Western” one, “our contradictions and ambiguities are countless” and that “all of us should show humility, respect, and consistency” in our engagements with each other.
If only.
Verse, novels
Going by publishing lists, India is coping better with the global financial crisis than most Western countries. Publishers in India seem positive about their lists for 2010. Of the Indian titles I have heard of, I will be looking forward to new books by Anita Nair, Tishani Doshi and Jeet Thayil. The last two are already established as poets, and deservedly so. They will be debuting with novels this year. Predictably, some reviewers will quibble about the ability of poets to write fiction, or their need to do so. But, having started off as a poet, I, for one, look forward to novels by good poets. At least, they try to write well.
Tabish Khair is the Denmark-based author of Filming.
Write to Tabish at readingroom@livemint.com
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First Published: Fri, Jan 22 2010. 08 38 PM IST