English Made Me

What a confession!

The reference – for those who have not guessed already – is to Graham Greene’s ‘England Made Me’. As I tell young men to this day: go and fall in love with somebody else’s daughter if you must, but don’t you go falling in love with somebody else’s language. I did both. And then I landed in Germany, the kind of evolutionary challenge Darwin would have recognised: will my English survive or will it wither on the stony German soil? All because of my English, learning Doitch was turning out to be not just tough but uproariously funny:-

Herr Kampmann: Good Day, Herr Artmann!

Herr Artmann: Good Day, Herr Kampmann!

Herr Kampmann: How goes it You?

Herr Artmann: Thanks good. And You?

Herr Kampmann: Thanks, it goes. Where come You?

Herr Artmann: I come out of Munich.

Herr Kampmann: And whereto travel You?

Herr Artmann: I travel to Bremen.

Herr Kampmann: Live You in Bremen?

Herr Artmann: Yes, I live now in Bremen.

Herr Kampmann: You excuse, Herr Artmann, my Train! To seeing you again!

Herr Artmann: To seeing you again! And good Journey!

This was Grundstufe Eins, that’s Basic Level One, to be followed by Basic Level Two and then Mittelstufe Eins, that’s Middle School – what the hell, they must mean Middle Level One. Well, whatever it is – or was – we were now dealing with texts like:-

One Cardriver strikes with another Cardriver, who from left comes, and whom he coming saw, together (separable verb ‘togetherstrike’), because he Right of Way has – what presses he with that ex (separable verb ‘express’)? Somewhat only his Right of Way? What forces him, himself this Right to take, since he thereby himself and one other nearly the Life takes? What obstructs him, his Need above his Right to put, to whose Realisation this Right after all there had to be? How great must the Maltreatment of his Needs be, so that he the Means to their Realisation for that uses, their Realisation to prevent? Where are, except in Street-intercourse, these Needs so maltreated?

It wasn’t the fault of that very pragmatic and rational language called German that an ex-colonial expat from India was transliterating everything into English in his head and laughing himself silly in the process. He was not laughing himself silly, he was being silly – the Germans would have told him, had they not been so polite. Since then, they’ve been praising my (by now half-baked, though no longer broken) German and completely disregarding my English, overlooking it altogether. Why? Because I’m not a native speaker. What’s a native speaker? Does it mean a native – in those early days of missionising and colonising – who has just learnt how to speak, instead of communicating his thoughts and emotions in terms of grunts and squeaks? Later, it could have meant (I’m just guessing) a native who has learnt to speak English. Ultimately a native speaker is one who was born speaking English – or maybe just hearing English? ‘Hey, if that’s my son, how come he’s got (or has not got) blue eyes and blond hair?’ Though that should apply to all other languages as well (just change the colour of the eyes and the hair), except pidgin, patois and Indian English.

Well, let’s say a native speaker is something like champagne being champagne only if it comes from Champagne, everything else being sparkling wine. Similarly, my English is neither gorgonzola nor mozzarella, it’s just mouldy Indian English – and who has heard of English growing in India after the British left?

And there was I, feeling as if I’d been dropped behind enemy lines during WWII, or at least like Le Carré’s spy before he came in from the cold (war?). I was feeling as intensely British as in a war movie or a war comic of my Kolkata schooldays, while mildly concerned German friends were asking me if I was feeling unwell.

Tell us about Bengali – they’d be saying, to cheer me up or to distract me, even sitting up in their sofas and couches in their enthusiasm. Now, Bengali, that is your mother tongue, is it not? What kind of a language is that?

Why don’t you go and ask the British? I told them. After all, they had been in Bengal for more than two hundred years. Should be ruddy native speakers by now.

(To be continued)

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2 thoughts on “English Made Me

  1. Very funny in a nice sort of way. I studied German in Delhi for three years and had gotten reasonably proficient. In the 1990s I started learning Japanese. I was going to Japan often on business. I recall a dream about an old friend from India who had gone to Germany. He started conversing in German, and I was left explaining to him how after coming to the US had no opportunity to use it and had mostly forgotten. As I woke up I realized that I had spoken a hybrid language with Japanese verbs and German declinations!

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  2. I never developed the facility to carry on a conversation in Japanese. I could get around the country, stay at tiny ryokans,get directions, but the most valuable part to me was that I could understand the English my clients spoke.

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