Ja well no fine

As I’m relatively new to the BDRA, I will use this post to tell you a little bit about myself. I’m from South Africa, which means that I say ‘Ja’ (pronounced ‘Ya’) rather a lot. (South Africans almost never say ‘Yes’, although we’re known to say ‘Yeeees’ when adding special emphasis to the affirmative.) I also come from that generation of South Africans whose vocabulary irritatingly includes the phrase ‘Ja well no fine!’, which means roughly the same as the Indian head nod (I learnt this by spending most of last year in India and frequently getting into trouble for misinterpreting this vital but cryptic bit of body language) – which, depending on context and accompanying clues such as a smile or a twinkle in the eye, can mean yes, no or maybe. (And in India, a twinkle in the eye can just as easily mean ‘No’ as it can ‘Yes’, as if things weren’t confusing enough already.) ‘Ja well no fine’ has the added advantage though, that it can stand in for ‘Well then!’ or ‘Oh!’ or any other English conversation filler that you might use when you don’t know what else to say. I’m pretty sure it was the writer Robin Malan, better known in South Africa by the phonetically spelt version of his name, Rawbone Malong, who popularized the phrase in the early seventies with the publication of his book Ah Big Yaws? A Guard to Sow Theffricun Innglissh, which, roughly translated into standard English, means ‘I beg your pardon? A Guide to South African English’, and which instantly became the definitive, if merciless, guide to white South African English pronunciation – even being used as a reference by the BBC’s drama department at the time.

Of course things have changed since then, and so-called Black English has taken its rightful place in the annals of our nation’s linguistic history. There was that great story some years back, of how Nelson Mandela once asked a member of the South African Airways crew for the black pepper, and she returned with that day’s edition of The Sowetan newspaper. (Those were the days when our national carrier crew’s fame revolved around more innocent things than facilitating South Africa’s international trade in dagga. Um, ja well no fine…)

That whole, rambling preamble was just to say that my interest in joining the BDRA’s DUCKLING team, specifically to work with the School of Education on the MA in TESOL & Applied Linguistics, has a few of its roots in my lifelong interest in regional dialects and world languages, living and dead. Apart from laughing deliriously at Malan’s exquisitely accurate transcription of our local idioms in my teens, I also studied Latin at school (while my friends were doing more sensible subjects like Science or Accountancy), after which I learnt a bizarre mixture of German, Swiss German and French on an exchange student year in Switzerland, which only my host family, in particular my ‘Mami’, who expended many hours teaching me her native French through the medium of our shared but totally butchered version of Swiss German, could ever fully understand.

Back in South Africa, I immersed myself in the anti-apartheid struggle in the eighties, majoring in Zulu while engaging in the deliberately subversive project of teaching literacy to black adults who had been denied an education by the evil Verwoerdian policies established in the fifties, all the while losing friends and colleagues for various periods of time to detention without trial, solitary confinement and other forms of institutional abuse in the political cauldron that was South Africa at the time. My postgraduate studies in Applied Linguistics provided welcome light relief.

A year in Spain in the early nineties, just before South Africa was due to undergo its peaceful transition to democracy (although we all feared that the Bothas and De Klerks were going to lead us into the bloodiest of civil wars) helped to calm my frantic spirit, while simultaneously adding to the linguistic muddle in my head – the murkiest depths of the latter being reached when I was commissioned to translate a novel from the Galician dialect into English, with the help of a hastily scribbled German translation that the (German-born) author had written for her mother. Learning Spanish was not without its mishaps. I think I will forever be remembered by my Spanish flatmates for casually remarking over lunch one day, ‘No me gusta nada la comida que tiene preservativos’, which translates as ‘ I can’t stand food with condoms in it.’ (I was only trying to say I don’t like preservatives…)

Subsequent attempts to learn Arabic while on a working stint in the Middle East yielded frustratingly little fruit: I got blindsided by the Arabs’ utterly inconsiderate convention of writing from right to left, in squiggles that represent only consonants, leaving the vowels almost entirely up to the reader’s imagination. And as the old Zen saying goes, in the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities… (But seriously, on the subject of different alphabets, there is a fascinating account of the development of writing systems in Maryanne Wolf’s book, ‘Proust and the Squid’. Frustratingly though, her wonderful historical descriptions are somewhat marred by her rather apocryphal views on the emerging culture of what she calls the ‘Google universe’, in which ‘continuous partial attention and multitasking’ are the norm. She fears (but does not substantiate) that this will lead to huge compromises in the human race’s ability to conduct the ‘deep examination of thoughts, words and reality’ which is characteristic of literate societies. Ja well… she hasn’t convinced me. More about that in a later blog, perhaps – in which I promise I will focus on matters related to learning and technology…

My recent stay in India immersed me in the quaint and colourful world of ‘Indlish’ (Indian English) – part charming old English from the Raj era, and part off-the-wall linguistic idiosyncrasy. The owner of the travel agency I used in Bangalore had the distinction of being called the ‘Proprietrix’ on her business card, store rooms were called ‘godowns’ (even if you had to go upstairs to get to them), and shopfronts frequently displayed beautifully calligraphed notices advising customers to ‘Enter from the backside only’ – a surprisingly common linguistic quirk, which was immortalised by author Binoo John, in the title for his book on Indlish. Perhaps the most memorable example from his book is the supposedly popular opening line in official letters: ‘Dear Sir, with reference to your above see my below.’ Ja well…!

And now, here I am in England, where all manner of Innglisshes are spoken by the local tribes – some of them completely incomprehensible to the untrained ear. No fine… it seems my journey into linguistics has only just begun!

By Gabi

%d bloggers like this: