‘forcing myself to create something new’: the unintentional brilliance of amharenglish. maybe.
In the last week of summer school teaching, I was assigned the additional, utterly riveting task of sorting all the job applications for the very many vacant teaching posts. Being a
nosy curious sort of person, I took the occasional glimpse at the CVs and cover letters, and soon realised that most of them weren’t written in English but a strange and fascinating variant: ‘Amharenglish’. I couldn’t resist noting down my favourites:
Apparent ship indifferent schools
Degree in forging language and literature
Collage of social since
I have excessive training
I have 2 years Experian’s
I have gathered 3 year’s work experience
One privet company
Forcing myself to create something new
maintaining deficient material
I also enjoy going to the gym, and lakes to swim
Reasonable Visioner’s club
Participating in human trial activities
I am big enough to carry out any responsibility
Hopping to get your positive response, I remain.
I will be delighted if you consider my full particulars
Journey to success in future remainder days
I do hope that I would do my best
Kindly summit my letter
As these show so colourfully, Amharenglish – a word coined by my colleague Kofi in an article for lifestyle magazine ‘Addis Life’ – refers to the fascinating Amharic-influenced hybrid of English used by so many Ethiopians. Often it’s a question of spelling or grammar (ie all the spirits in a texas-themed bar called Rodeo’s are ‘1 shat’ instead of ‘1 shot’), sometimes a question of semantics: what exactly is ‘dry cake’ and where else would ‘fresh fish from sea and river’ come from? It’s more obvious in prose, but you can see it everywhere (see pictures, all courtesy of the wonderful tori morgan).
Lots of countries have their own pidgin-ised versions of English. Chinglish is unbeatable – intriguing and absurd, the kind of playful linguistic mash-up so loved by postructuralists. I’ve heard it said this opacity is deliberate, subverting and unpicking the code of meaning of an oppressively ubiquitous language. I’m not sure if it’s true, but, as Ethiopians say, ‘variety is beauty’, and Shanghai’s attempts to replace it with standard English do strike me as killjoy-ish. It’s more or less understandable, and far more enjoyable to native readers than any functional, utilitarian version.
I’m tempted to make the same defence of Amharenglish, but I’ve never really felt that same sense of playfulness, and also wonder, in both cases, if I’m defending as a sign of character, playfulness and variety what is actually a default of poor, or non-existent, education in English.
Like everything, it’s probably a bit of both. On one hand, Ethiopian English will always tend to have a distinct character: the most exciting thing I learnt during my CELTA course was the way in which each learner’s native language affects future language acquisition. I can hear it here in the way Ethiopians separate out their consonants (ie ‘projec-uh-t’) because consonant clusters are not common here, and less proficient speakers place verbs near the end of their sentences. Such linguistic predilections do influence Amharenglish, and make it a window into their linguistic inheritance.
On the other hand, while I can’t help being amused by Amharenglish, it’s no laughing matter for Ethiopians for whom English is the key to a better income or job. This is, cruelly, even true in miniature at the lowest social level, where beggars and tiny children shout ‘allo’ and ‘give me money’ as passwords to open the wallets of passing tourists. Kofi’s article laments its prevalence as a symptom of generally poor standards of English teaching in the country and a factor in the chronic disadvantage of perfectly well-qualified people in jobs requiring English. There’s truth on both counts: language schools frequently claim with heavy irony to offer ‘perfect English skill’ or the like, and I’ve seen highly capable people contemplating the thought of a TOEFL examination with dread.
Maybe it’s not OK to smile at Amharenglish in, say, a CV as it is at Amharenglish on a sign, because you’re also smiling at educational disadvantage. It’s pretty smug, at the very least.
But is it as simple as that? Some of the applicants whose CVs I handled obviously hadn’t written most of them. Genius I am, I deduced that, unless about ten different people were the joint founder and ‘principle member’ of the ‘Ethiopian geological science and mineralogical engineering society’ (must be popular), they’d used a template, thus succumbing to its own flaws. There’s also the fact that spelling errors can generally be corrected on Word with the press of a button (F7) – while a lot of these teachers may not have had laptops, Addis is packed with cheap, well-equipped internet cafes. A lot of fairly large businesses and restaurants who definitely have the money and resources to spell-check make heinous spelling mistakes – what other conclusion is there than that ‘proper’ English is not a priority?
To some extent, then, Amharenglish is an educational inheritance, and to some extent it is also a choice or a comfortable habit. Which puts me in a difficult position. A confession: my original impulse was to make a cut-up poem from Amharenglish fragments, a poetry of the absurd – although, on close inspection, I don’t think it’s absurd at all. ‘Indifferent schools’, ‘remainder days’ – there’s an accidental linguistic magic here. It’s kind of like why I love puns: two arbitrary words forming a perfectly truthful unity. (not to mention the fact that ‘apparent ship’ is such a good misnomer for a path to a new life [apprenticeship], as Ethiopia is landlocked…)
But. But but… is indulging in Amharenglish’s idiosyncrasies inescapably demeaning? I’m still capitalising on its ‘weirdness’ compared to normal English, exploiting an inability – if perhaps voluntary to some degree – to construct ‘proper English’, getting pleasure from it.
So, no poem. But I still think Amharenglish can be celebrated. In England, CVs all use the same jargon about ‘interpersonal skills’ and ‘teambuilding’, but here, as English was uniformly the second language, these applicants couldn’t slip into the same unthinking clichés. Some of them were indeed ‘forging language’, and it shows in their creativity. It is ‘forcing myself to create something new’ – and who in England would write this? It strikes me as honest and unusual, and really warms me to whoever wrote it (as do equally unusual hobbies like ‘admiring nature’, ‘watching documentaries’ and even, er, ‘reading different reference books’. and referencing ‘albert einstine’ is brilliant). I like the earnestness and creativity.
(but is that just patronising too?)
ENOUGH. Help a brother out people – am I totally neo-colonialist? do i think too much? (do I ask too many questions?) Moral compasses/comments much appreciated. X