Yesterday evening Rajend Mesthrie and Jeanne Hromnik launched their book, Eish, but is it English? Celebrating the South African variety at The Book Lounge, where they kept word sleuths and lovers of the English language intrigued with historical anecdotes about the history and currency of English in South Africa.
Providing the audience with a background to the development of the book, Jeanne Hromnik said the catalyst for writing Eish, but is it English was another book by Mesthrie, World Englishes, which Hromnik was drawn to for the seeming incorrectness of the title. Hromnik said she attended the launch of World Englishes, but after reading the book, found the text difficult to understand and the numbered paragraphs off-putting.
But it was the spoken and not written word that won Hromnik over. At the launch of World Englishes, Hromnik found herself identifying with the things Mesthrie was speaking about. Mesthrie, who used to feature on SAFM‘s now defunct Word of Mouth programme, was hesitant at first when Hromnik approached him with the idea of writing a book about language for an audience outside of academia. Later (at a time when he was immobilised and thus susceptible due to a knee operation), Mesthrie warmed to the idea.
Anyone who has ever been called out for inapproapriate or ungrammatical usage of English will take please in finding that, as Mesthrie reveals in the book, “in speech…we are all equally well dressed”. Furthermore, Mesthrie points out that “speaking a language well does not make you an expert on language, the same way that breathing oxygen does not make you an expert in biology”.
On the topic of South African colloquialisms, Mesthrie says it is actually very difficult writing a book about English without talking about the influence of other languages. He says every time we say “now now” or “quick quick” we are “paying abeyance” to Afrikaans and its Malay influences.
Mesthrie then read some passages from the book about the origins of the word “robot” and how in South African English the word has come to be associated with traffic lights. Mesthrie traced the word back to its Czech origins, “robota”, which means “forced labour”. Later, when an audience member challenged him on this translation, arguing that “robota” simply means “labour” and not “forced labour”, Mesthrie joked that in Eastern Europe perhaps all labour is “forced”. A third passage considered how black English is often seen as “not proper” for its placement of the subject in certain phrases where the subject is usually absent. However, Mesthrie argues that despite this being considered “incorrect” by the “language police”, this linguistic habit is far more logical than leaving the subject out of a sentence, as in the phrase, “As can be seen, …”.
Mesthrie conlcuded his talk with a “message of hope”, remarking that we are very fortunate to be living in a country that has English as a resource. He says mastery of the English language is such a sought-after skill that in places like South Korea families are broken up and their kids are sent away to learn English abroad. Said Mesthrie, “They are so desperate that they will send their kids to Potchefstroom!”
Eish, but is it English promises to be a highly satisfying read; it applies a linguistic microscope to South Africa’s history, revealing facts about our heritage we might not otherwise have known. The books also contains what Mesthrie calls “the most amazing sentence in the English language”, which was written, not by Shakespeare or JM Coetzee, but by a German missionary in South Africa. Despite pleas from the audience for him to reveal this sentence, Mesthrie displayed his more shrewd side by advising, “you will have to read the book to find out”.
* * * * * * * *
Books LIVE tweeted from the launch using #livebooks:
* * * * * * * *