Becoming a mongrel of ‘Englishes’

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BETWEEN THE LINES: Phillip Chidavaenzi

I HAVE observed that a lot of upcoming authors writing in English have a tendency of mixing up American and British English. Though not a cardinal sin, it tends to demean the value of the book in certain professional circles and on the international market.

In fact, it appears as if a lot of these young authors do not even know the differences between these two most dominant “Englishes”. These differences often manifest in orthographies, or the spelling system of a language. For instance, the Americans use “realize”, “color” and “center” where the British would use “realise”, “colour” and “centre”, respectively.

These differences emerged between the 1750s and early 1800s when Samuel Johnson published A Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, while an American standardised orthography was birthed following Noah Webster’s release of An American Dictionary of the English Language in 1828.

The publications extensively helped in defining and distinguishing the two English varieties. Traditionally, the standard English in Zimbabwe and the Commonwealth (a club of former British colonies) is British English.

But if one prefers to use American English, it is not a “crime”, either. It only becomes a crime when the author is not consistent in their use of that particular English variety. Consistency is important.

Although this may all sound somewhat strange, one might be interested to know that such variety manifests even in Shona. For example, in the Manyika dialect, the letter “w” is often used in place of “v” in the Zezuru dialect.

Internationally acclaimed Nigerian author, Adichie Chimamanda Ngozie, described herself as “a mongrel of ‘Englishes’” in a conversation titled Literature, Power & the Academy: A Conversation with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, with professors at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland, Elisabeth Dutton and Alexandre Duchene on November 15, 2019.

Adichie is the author of Purple Hibiscus, Half of a Yellow Sun, The Thing Around Your Neck, Americanah and We Should All Be Feminists. She is also popularly known for her TEDTalk presentation, The Danger of a Single Story.

“But I do feel that I’ve become a kind of mongrel of Englishes. I’d like to think that my work reflects the kind of English I’m familiar with, which is a certain kind of Nigerian English . . . An English deeply flavoured with Igbo, the other language I speak,” she said.

Adichie then explained about Pidgin English, another bastardised version of English, which one frequently encounters in Nigerian movies. This is a rather informal version of English spoken among the lower social classes in Nigeria. She described this as “. . . the multipleness of English in my world.”

When Americans speak or write, one notices their English is not exactly like that used by the British, or maybe Australians, South Africans and Zimbabweans.

There was a time when I thought my English had to be faultlessly British every time I write. I remember that this drive for perfection was born out of rejection. This was after an evaluator at Mambo Press had rejected my first ever manuscript around 2001/2002 on the basis that there was too much use of what she called Colloquial English in my writing.
Colloquialism is a word or phrase that is not formal or literary, and is used in ordinary or familiar conversation.

But over the years, I have been increasingly fascinated by the disruptive innovations that have crept into the study of language and literature. This is why it is exciting to have a new crop of young writers like Roderick Mazoyo, author of Hupenyu Hauna Formula and Audrey Chirenje, who recently published Life Will Humble You. Chirenje, in particular, uses the largely informal English you may call slang, spoken among a younger generation of Zimbabweans, to tell her story.

Linguists, however, argue that colloquialism is not necessarily slang (words used by specific social groups such as teenagers or soldiers), but may include slang while consisting mainly of contractions or other informal words and phrases known to most native speakers of the language.

In 2016, veteran author Spiwe Mahachi-Harper published a collection of short stories titled Tales from the Kombi: The Shattered Pattern of Life. Originally considered slang, “kombi” (commuter omnibus), is now being used in formal writing, and has become part of Zimbabwean English. The same applies to words such as “robot” (traffic lights), “durawall” (precast wall) and “small house” (mistress), which have all found their way into official writing.

During a recent chat with University of Zimbabwe lecturer and literary critic, Tanaka Chidora, about this very subject, he revealed he was working on a thesis titled When Ancestors Speak in English: Chenjerai Hove’s Groundbreaking Shonalised English Novel.

A Noma Award for Publishing in Africa winner, the late Hove left behind a rich literary portfolio which included Bones (1988) and Ancestors (1994). Chidora describes the latter as “a ground-breaking project with an Achebean tinge to it because it was the first full throttle attempt by a Zimbabwean author to, so to speak, make ancestors converse in English”. He further argues that by so doing, Hove joined “the side of Chinua Achebe, who argued that English can be made to carry the weight of his African experience”.

But perhaps what is more catchy is Chidora’s proposition that Ancestors “is also an archive of what I can call Zimbabwean English, in terms of the use of Shona idioms and speech rhythms”.

This is powerful, and so very liberating, especially the acknowledgment that Hove’s “process of “Shonalising” manifests in the new generation of globetrotting Zimbabwean writers who seem to be creating a ‘home’ away from home by importing various idiomatic forms of Zimbabwean languages into their writings”. Among these globetrotters are Petina Gappah, Brian Chikwava and Panashe Chigumadze.