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‘forcing myself to create something new’: the unintentional brilliance of amharenglish. maybe.

December 3, 2010

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:

Experience

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

 

Hobbies

Forcing myself to create something new

maintaining deficient material

I also enjoy going to the gym, and lakes to swim

Wondering nature

Reasonable Visioner’s club

Participating in human trial activities

 

Personality

Vigilant

Very normal

I am big enough to carry out any responsibility

 

Cover letters

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

  

Reference

Albert Einstine

  

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.

 

❤ chinglish

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.

 

uncle sam, as english as apple strudel

 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

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. December 3, 2010 8:24 PM

    Sophie, great article, amusing, intriguing, tragic, almost perfect.

    But let me explain something (this WILL offend you, and for that I apologise:

    The average time a reader spends on a blog is 30 seconds. If she chooses to read that blog it´s 2 minutes more or less.

    So, less verbose.

    I´m sorry for being so mean because it´s a fascinating article!!

  2. Danny permalink
    December 6, 2010 1:11 AM

    Hey Sophie. I didn’t know you had a blog! I have had just these exact thoughts while I was teaching. My conclusion was that there is nothing so incredibly hilarious as when one of the pupils makes a hilarious mistake and anything that gets a cheap laugh from a class can’t be wrong.

    I did a couple of lessons around the idea of different Englishes and all my pupils without exception said they wanted to learn it ‘properly’ even if they would communicate just fine in English-Studio-International-Pidginese.They generally agreed NAmE was probably properer, although they would settle for speaking like the Queen because it *was* a lot easier to study in London than the US. (The Queen is always a big presence in my class when I do stuff about register.) And I would want to learn a language ‘properly’. Also for most of my guys, who came from the upper middle classes of places like Colombia, Brasil and Turkey, learning English was essentially a kind of status symbol. Rich Columbian girls all get boob jobs for their 15th birthday and years in London or Oz for their 21st. More righterer grammar = betterer wealth/culture signal. Why do people pay to learn a second language? If it ain’t money then it sure won’t be hurting them on the old cultural capital front, which tends to ripen into capital capital at a later date.

    Also, if they taught the poor kids better English their poverty would be better disguised and it would probably have a tasty redistributive effect. The whole ‘sound like a nob to get a cushty job’ ethic is repulsive obv.

    A less repulsive argument is the Aristotlean idea that practices have virtues that are intrinsic to them. You’ve kind of got to approach something your learning aiming to be good at it on its own terms – and its only when you are shit hot on its own terms that you can actually play with the terms themselves. I don’t know if that is right or just a pragmatic truth about people not respecting you unless you show off – and it’s all cringe-inducingly conservative – but there’s something right going on in there, even if the whole status-superiority side of things is a big reason ‘real English’ is still demanded. Most of my pupils were both unconscious Aristotealians AND more or less conscious money-grabbing-social-climbers. Maybe bad teaching turns them to the latter by giving them a functional view of their learning whereas good teaching turns them all into eudaimonic little Aristotles flourishing all over the place and loving the language for it’s own sake …?

    I’ll shutup now.

    (My very favourite and brightest students were the ones who were able to revel in their own gaps and create great creative self-conscious pidgin words and sentences. My actual best student could communicate absolutely everything anyone would ever want to communicate brilliantly and engagingly – he could even do irony everything – after about a MONTH and with very very limited grammar and vocab! Dunno what that means…)

    OK NOW I’ll shutup. xx

  3. December 10, 2010 3:04 PM

    Guys, thanks for the comments.
    @toby: no, please do be brutally honest, I’ll never progress otherwise. And I agree, in this case at least: the post was supposed to be short, and then I got the guilts and got bogged down in thinking. I think longer posts are sometimes necessary (ie narrative travelogue), but my general aim is 500 words max per post (how’s that for length btw?), hopefully ill stick to it better in the future. looking through, I probably could have cut some whole paragraphs. My life = constant battle against verbosity :/ (my next post is almost 1000 too, but I just didnt know what to cut. any feedback on that also appreciated (i’ll post it later today).

    @danny: wow, epic reply! Thanks for your thoughts – really insightful. I’m not sure I even grasped everything you said, but I will try and reply.

    I think it depends on context – if English is a status symbol in Ethiopia, it’s normally as an inevitable corollary of the extra earning power rather than the aim in itself (although as you said, just how separable are social capital and capital capital?)
    But I also have to remind myself that learning additional languages is a privilege not a right so I can’t get too bleeding-heart about people who for whatever variety of reasons don’t know it properly (especially when they write on their cvs ‘english level: very perfect’). But I think it’s different when it’s students who make these mistakes, because it’s part of the learning process and a hilarious but temporary situation, but with, say, these teachers applying for jobs, it may be permanent – and then it’s just the same joke over and over again, getting staler and sadder.

    I think language especially is one of those things that if you want to learn it, you want to learn it perfectly – ie you want to learn ‘it’ rather than ‘most of it’. And either you can communicate naturally and effectively or you can’t, and I really doubt this is possible without the full arsenal of a language (maybe your brightest most creative student is an exception – that’s truly amazing though. Or maybe I’m overstating the role of language in communication…). And until you can play with the terms, you’re in thrall to the language rather than the other way round – it takes a long time to feel empowered in a language (/and in the societies of that language). in the arts true geniuses always master their form before mixing it up, it’s not just a pragmatic truth. Hmm, perhaps you can access another kind of creativity when you bend the rules without yet knowing them, but I still think there’s less you can do, consciously at least. But either way, I’m not sure I’d go as far as calling it Aristotelian – even if the motives aren’t consciously money-related, I also doubt how relevant learning a language for the sheer joy of the language is to most people’s desires when they start out.
    Though I hope you’re right – maybe GREAT teaching can bring it out. eudaemonic students ftw. xx

  4. December 16, 2010 12:58 AM

    I guess I agree with what you are saying although I don’t want too :p

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