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The Significance Of Accents

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by Vijaya Chandrasoma

I have traveled more than anyone else, and I have noticed that even the angels speak English with an accent – Mark Twain

English is now recognized as the global language, widely spoken in most parts of the world. It is certainly the universal language of international trade and commerce. However, distinctive accents in the use of English in different parts of the world make English sound as if different languages are being spoken.

Countries originally settled by Anglo-Saxons, like the United States of America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, have, with some variations, recognized English as their national language. English of the original immigrants, blended with those of the hundreds of millions who emigrated to the New World from Europe, and the more recent arrivals from the colonies of the old British Empire in Asia, Africa and the West Indies.

However, the nations colonized by the British, especially those countries in the Indian Subcontinent, boasted of a proud history of their own languages and cultures. Their willing embrace of the English was necessarily merged with the sounds of their native languages, Hindi, Urdu, Sinhala and Tamil. The language resulting from the blending of these proud languages with that of the invader unfortunately gave birth to an English accent which is an unpleasant onslaught on the senses.

The 20th century saw a flood of immigrants to Europe, Canada and the USA. Religious persecution, poverty and two World Wars were the main reasons for immigration to the USA; the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free”, economic refugees seeking a better future for themselves and their children. The end of World War II and the resultant labor shortages saw an influx of immigrants to Europe. Post-war Britain facing labor shortages enticed immigrants from their defunct empire to the nation we had been brainwashed to revere as the “Motherland”, to do the menial jobs that the natives felt were beneath their dignity.

Of course, accents played a part within the host countries themselves. In England, the accepted accent till the late 20th century for diplomats, the upper crust and the BBC was the Oxford/Cambridge variety, cultivated in the prestigious public (read private, expensive, snobbish) schools in the land. English is spoken with a multitude of accents depending on the locale in which you live. The Brummie (Birmingham) accent is different from the London cockney, the Liverpudlian from the West Country; and if you strike up a conversation with a Scotsman at a pub in Aberdeen, you will find it hard put to understand the drift of the conversation, especially had you slaked your thirst with that golden elixir, the hallmark of the nation.

The upper classes of colonial and post-colonial Sri Lanka, educated at Christian private mission schools, with the single exception of one government school in Colombo, often scoffed condescendingly at the English spoken in Sinhala and Tamil villages. As the hoary and offensive joke goes, when referring to an inhabitant from the Southern City of Galle, “You can take the boy out of Gaul, but you can’t take the Goal out of the boy!”

I emigrated to the USA in the late 80s, during the peak of the JVP and LTTE strife. I was amused, sometimes perturbed, to observe American attitudes to the accents of recent immigrants. The natives of the 50 states of this vast and powerful nation spoke English in their different accents; but American English had pretty much evolved into a uniform dialect.

As Theodore Roosevelt said at the turn of the 20th century, “We have room for but one language, the English language, for we intend to see that the crucible turns our people out as Americans, and not as dwellers in a polyglot boarding house”. He has been proved largely prescient, though the recent influx of immigrants from Latin America and Asian countries has made for vast tracts of communities who speak only their own language, with a smattering of English to get by. This will change when their offspring join a new generation of Americans.

Generally, Americans have a combination of both inferiority and superiority complexes about the accent used in their nation when compared to the languages spoken in the “Old Country”. Each set of new immigrants till the middle of the 20th century added something of their own language/culture to the dialect now accepted as American English. First generation immigrants, however, usually retain the accents of the language they spoke at home, although many try to emulate the accents of the host country to demonstrate their eagerness to assimilate. Americans have formed their own conceptions, often stereotyped and fallacious, of the characteristics these various accents suggest.

Americans are generally in awe of those speaking with a British accent. Never mind the accent is OxCam or cockney, Welsh or Scots, these accents are often falsely regarded as evidence of an upper class education, even a status symbol. A French accent is admired as the mellifluous language of love and romance; such an accent, when accompanied with a gallant kiss on the hand, will make any lady, not just American, swoon. The Australian accent, which to my ears is just a variation of the lowly Cockney, is also held in high regard in the United States, while the guttural German is thought to be indicative of cold, even brutal, efficiency. Other European accents are held in varying degrees of esteem, depending on their national stereotypes. One accent that is universally enjoyed is the Jamaican, which opens up fantasies of warm beaches, cocktails with little umbrellas, reggae and calypso music and wild parties with a surfeit of sex and pot, lots of pot.

Sadly, the accent held in the least esteem are the discordant sounds of the English language spoken by first generation immigrants from the Indian Subcontinent, contemptuously personified by Apu in the popular TV show, “The Simpsons”. It has also been disdainfully described as an accent, when used by a man pursuing a woman, that would be the least likely to help him getting laid. Unless, of course, the lady in pursuit hailed from the Subcontinent, in which event a mere accent would likely prove to be least of the problems.

Many of these immigrants from the Subcontinent are highly educated professionals, medical, engineering, and the like. Their education has often been “refined” by the hallowed schools of learning in England. They take inordinate pride in their distinctive and cultured accents, and many refuse to parrot the pidgin American of their host nation. As an example, my brother emigrated to California over 40 years ago. He received his education up to MD General Medicine (Sri Lanka) and MRCP (UK), in Colombo. After a brief period of training at the University of Southern California, he has been teaching pathology at the USC Medical School for over 40 years, as the Head of Surgical Pathology of the most prestigious university in Los Angeles. Like me, he talks with the same English accent we learned at Royal College, which neither of us has been able to shed; me, after six years in England as a student and over 20 years in the United States, and my brother, after 40 years’ teaching pathology to American medical students. I asked him once why he didn’t adapt his accent to better communicate with his students, why he still used words like ‘nought’ and ‘fortnight’ which are unfamiliar to Americans. His typically arrogant Sri Lankan response was: “I am not going to change the way I speak. Let the buggers look up any words they don’t understand!”

Americans, and it must be confessed, even many of these educated immigrants from the Subcontinent, look down upon the grating accents of recent immigrants from the Indian Subcontinent, usually economic refugees of the “lower orders” with little education and fewer skills. They do their utmost to parrot the American accent in a desperate desire to blend in, efforts which unfortunately result in a bad accent made even more jarring.

When I first arrived in America in 1990, I met with some Sri Lankans living in the twilight zone of the undocumented immigrant, making great efforts to pursue the elusive American Dream. One of them, fresh out of LAX, heard a dog barking, and exclaimed, in Sinhala, with an air of wonderment, “Aday, machang, even the dogs here bark with an American accent”.

American prejudice against the accents of immigrants from the Subcontinent is a really yet another not so subtle expression of racism. I have personally suffered this form of discrimination, when insensitive American co-workers tried to mimic my accent in an effort to diminish me. My advanced age at the time (49), and lack of American work experience compelled me to take lowly, often menial jobs in an effort to put food on the table, secure medical insurance and pay the rent. But I never let these taunts take me down, because I knew I was better than them. I am not being arrogant or conceited, it was a low bar I had to clear. However, this kind of cruel mimicry can have a devastating effect on children, especially those in their formative years.

In Los Angeles, we made friends with an Indian family living in our apartment complex, who were in a similar situation. They had an only daughter, a beautiful and talented little girl, who attended the junior high school in the neighborhood. My friend and I shared the chore of taking our kids (my younger son had, during those first few days, enrolled in the local Community College) to school and picking them up at the end of the day, depending on our work schedules. I noticed that my friend’s little daughter looked very glum, sometimes close to tears when I picked her up after school. After a couple of weeks, concerned as only a father can feel for another’s obsessive need to protect his daughter, I decided to cross traditional lines of privacy and asked my friend if there were any problems with his daughter’s schooling. I thought maybe she had problems with adjustment to a new culture and a different curriculum. My friend broke down and told me the awful truth. Their daughter kept sobbing herself to sleep every night, in deep distress; she was being mocked for her Indian accent by the school bullies. He and his wife were at their wits’ end, even thinking of abandoning their quest for the American Dream and going back to India.

We talked to the scared, sensitive little girl, told her that she was better than any kid in the school; that she was better read and educated in the English language than most; that she should study hard and go on to complete her studies at the best university in the country. She tearfully agreed to try.

And try she did! She has exceeded even our most extravagant expectations. She gritted her teeth, bravely overcame the relentless taunts, won the English prize at the end of her junior school career, finished high school as its Valedictorian and earned a Summa cum Laude bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley. She didn’t stop there. She was accepted to Yale Law School, and is now a lawyer, the General Counsel at one of the nation’s leading philanthropic Foundations.

We have kept in touch with our Indian friends, and I am so enormously proud of their daughter’s achievements just as if she were my very own. In spite of the sad fact that she now speaks English with a perfect American accent.

Which is not to say that I haven’t been extraordinarily blessed with my two sons. They also took advantage of the wonderful educational opportunities available during the Clinton years to kids who were willing to work hard, and equipped themselves with degrees from equally prestigious universities. My pride in their achievements knows no bounds. And they have the added virtue of speaking English with just a trace of the accent we all learned at our alma mater, Royal College, Colombo.



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Features

Port City Bill Requires Referendum

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by Dr Jayampathy Wickramaratne,PC

The Colombo Port Economic Commission Bill was presented in Parliament on 08 April 2021, while the country was getting ready to celebrate the traditional New Year. With the intervening weekend and public holidays, citizens had just two working days to retain lawyers, many of whom were on vacation, and file applications challenging the constitutionality of the Bill in the Supreme Court within the one-week period stipulated in the Constitution. One wonders whether the timing was deliberate.

Special economic zones are common. They are created mainly to attract foreign investments. In return, investors are offered various concessions so that their products are competitive in the global market. Several negative effects of such zones have also been highlighted. The sole purpose of this article, however, is a discussion on the constitutionality of the Bill.

The Bill seeks to establish a high-powered Commission entrusted with the administration, regulation and control of all matters connected with businesses and other operations in and from the Colombo Port City. It may lease land situated in the Colombo Port City area and even transfer freehold ownership of condominium parcels. It operates as a Single Window Investment Facilitator for proposed investments into the Port City. It would exercise the powers and functions of any applicable regulatory authority under any written law and obtain the concurrence of the relevant regulatory authority, which shall, as a matter of priority, provide such concurrence to the Commission. The discretion and powers of such other authorities under the various laws shall thus stand removed.

The Commission consists of five members who need not be Sri Lankan citizens, quite unlike the Urban Development Authority, the Board of Management of which must comprise Sri Lankan citizens only. One issue that arises is that the vesting of such powers upon persons with loyalties to other countries, especially superpowers, would undermine the free, sovereign, and independent status of Sri Lanka guaranteed by Article 1 of our Constitution. It would also impinge on the sovereignty of the People of Sri Lanka guaranteed by Article 3 read with Article 4.

The removal of the discretionary powers of the various regulatory authorities is arbitrary and violative of the right to equal protection of the law guaranteed by Article 12 (1).

Under Clause 25, only persons authorized by the Commission can engage in business in the Port City. Clause 27 requires that all investments be in foreign currency only. What is worse is that even foreign currency deposited in an account in a Sri Lankan bank cannot be used for investment. Thus, Sri Lankans cannot invest in the Port City using Sri Lankan rupees; neither can they use foreign currency that they legally have in Sri Lanka. The above provisions are clearly arbitrary and discriminatory of Sri Lankans and violate equality and non-discrimination guaranteed by Article 12. They also violate the fundamental right to engage in business guaranteed by Article 14 (1) (g).

Under clause 35, any person, whether a resident or a non-resident, may be employed within the Port City and such employee shall be remunerated in a designated foreign currency, other than in Sri Lanka rupees. Such employment income shall be exempt from income tax. Clause 36 provides that Sri Lankan rupees accepted within the Port City can be converted to foreign currency. Under clause 40, Sri Lankans may pay for goods, services, and facilities in Sri Lankan rupees but would be required to pay a levy for goods taken out of the Port City, as if s/he were returning from another country! The mere repetition of phrases such as ‘in the interests of the national economy’ throughout the Bill like a ‘mantra’ does not bring such restrictions within permissible restrictions set out in Article 15.

Clause 62 requires that all disputes involving the Commission be resolved through arbitration. The jurisdiction of Sri Lankan courts is thus ousted.

In any legal proceedings instituted on civil and commercial matters, where the cause of action has arisen within the Port City or in relation to any business carried on in or from the Port City, Clause 63 requires Sri Lankan courts to give such cases priority and hear them speedily on a day-to-day basis to ensure their expeditious disposal.

The inability of an Attorney-at-Law to appear before the court even for personal reasons, such as sickness, shall not be a ground for postponement. These provisions are arbitrary and violate Article 12.

Clause 73 provides that several Sri Lankan laws listed in Schedule III would have no application within the Port City. Such laws include the Urban Development Authority Act, Municipal Councils Ordinance, and the Town and Country Planning Ordinance. Under Clauses 52 and 53, exemptions may be granted by the Commission from several laws of Sri Lanka, including the Inland Revenue Act, Betting and Gaming Levy Act, Foreign Exchange Act, and the Customs Ordinance.

The Commission being empowered to grant exemptions from Sri Lankan laws undermines the legislative power of the People and of Parliament and violates Articles 3 and Article 4 (c) of the Constitution.

Several matters dealt with by the Bill come under the Provincial Councils List. They include local government, physical planning, and betting and gaming. Article 154G (3) requires that such a Bill be referred to Provincial Councils for their views. As Provincial Councils are not currently constituted, passage by a two-thirds majority will be necessary in the absence of the consent of the Provincial Councils.

The exclusion of the Municipal Councils Ordinance from the Port City area is not possible under the Constitution. When the Greater Colombo Economic Commission was sought to be established in 1978 under the 1972 Constitution, a similar exclusion was held by the Constitutional Court not to be arbitrary. Since then, under the Thirteenth Amendment under the 1978 Constitution, local government has been given constitutional recognition and included under the Provincial Council List. Under the present constitutional provisions, therefore, the Port City cannot be excluded from laws on local government.

The writer submits that in the above circumstances, the Colombo Port Economic Commission Bill requires to be passed by a two-thirds majority in Parliament and approved by the People at a Referendum. Quite apart from the constitutional issues that arise, such an important piece of proposed legislation needs to be widely discussed. It is best that the Bill is referred to a Parliamentary Committee before which the public, as well as citizens’ organizations and experts in the related fields, could make their submissions.

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Features

Investigative Journalism?

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I usually end up totally exhausted when I finish reading the local newspapers from the Pearl. There are so many burning questions and so much is written about them but there are no conclusions and definitely no answers. For example, we seem to have three burning issues right now and this is not in order of importance.

We have a lengthy report that has been published on the Easter Sunday carnage. Everybody knows what I am talking about. However, no one, be it an editor, a paid journalist or a single one of the many amateurs who write to the papers, has reached a conclusion or even expressed an opinion as to who was responsible. At least not a believable one! Surely there are energetic and committed young people in the field of journalism today who, if asked, or directed properly will go out and find a source that would give them at least a credible hypothesis? Or do conclusions exist and has no one the courage to publish them?

At least interview the authors or should I use the word perpetrators of that report. If they refuse to be interviewed ask them why and publish an item every day asking them why! Once you get a hold of them, cross-examine them, trap them into admissions and have no mercy. It is usually geriatrics who write these reports in the Pearl and surely a bright young journalist can catch them out with a smart question or two, or at least show us that they tried? The future of the country depends on it!

We have allegations of contaminated coconut oil been imported. These are very serious allegations and could lead to much harm to the general populace. Do you really believe that no one can find out who the importers are and what brands they sell their products under? In this the Pearl, where everyone has a price, you mean to say that if a keen young journalist was given the correct ammunition (and I don’t mean 45 calibres) and sent out on a specific message, he or she couldn’t get the information required?

We are told that a massive amount of money has been printed over the last few months. There is only speculation as to the sums involved and even more speculation as to what this means to the people of the Pearl. Surely, there are records, probably guarded by extremely lowly paid government servants. I am not condoning bribery but there is nothing left to condone, is there? There are peons in government ministries who will gladly slip you the details if you are committed enough and if you are sent there to get it by a boss who will stand by you and refuse to disclose his sources.

I put it to you, dear readers, that we do not have enough professional, committed and adequately funded news organisations in the country. We can straightaway discount the government-owned joints. We can also largely discount those being run by magnates for personal gain and on personal agendas. As far as the Internet goes, we can forget about those that specialise in speculative and sensationalist untruths, what are we left with O denizens of the Pearl? Are there enough sources of news that you would consider willing to investigate a matter and risk of life and limb and expose the culprits for the greater good of society? Can they be counted even on the fingers of one hand?

In this era when we have useless political leaders, when law and order are non-existent when the police force is a joke, it is time the fourth estate stepped up to the mark! I am sure we have the personnel; it is the commitment from the top and by this, I mean funding and the willingness to risk life and limb, that we lack. Governments over the last few decades have done their best to intimidate the press and systematically destroy any news outlet that tried to buck the usual sycophantic behaviour that is expected from them by those holding absolute power.

Do you think Richard Nixon would ever have been impeached if not for the Watergate reporting? Donald Trump partially owes his defeat to the unrelenting campaign carried out against him by the “fake news” outlets that he tried to denigrate. Trump took on too much. The fourth estate of America is too strong and too powerful to destroy in a head-to-head battle and even the most powerful man in the world, lost. Let’s not go into the merits and demerits of the victor as this is open to debate.

Now, do we have anything like that in the Pearl? Surely, with 20 million-plus “literate” people, we should? We should have over 70 years of independence built up the Fourth Estate to be proud of. One that would, if it stood strong and didn’t waver and collapse under pressure from the rulers, have ensured a better situation for our land. Here is Aotearoa with just five million people, we have journalists who keep holding the government to account. They are well-funded by newspapers and TV networks with audiences that are only a fraction of what is available in the Pearl. Some of the matters they highlight often bring a smirk of derision to my face for such matters wouldn’t even warrant one single line of newsprint, should they happen in the Pearl.

Talking of intimidation from the rulers, most of us are familiar with the nationalisation of the press, the murder and torture of journalists, the burning of presses to insidious laws been passed to curtail the activities of Journalism. These things have happened in other countries, too, but the people and press have been stronger, and they have prevailed. We are at a watershed, an absolutely crucial time. It is now that our last few credible news sources should lift their game. Give us carefully researched and accurate reports with specific conclusions, not generalisations. Refuse to disclose your sources as is your right, especially now that the myopic eye of the UNHCR is turned in our direction.

All other ways and means of saving our beloved motherland, be it government, religion, sources of law and order and even civil society leadership seems to have lapsed into the realm of theory and rhetoric. Our last chance lies with the Fourth Esate and all it stands for. I call for, nay BEG for, a favourable reaction from those decision-makers in that field, who have enough credibility left in society, DON’T LET US DOWN NOW!

 

 

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Features

The world sees ugly side of our beauty pageants

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Yes, it’s still the talk-of-the-town…not only here, but the world over – the fracas that took place at a recently held beauty pageant, in Colombo.

It’s not surprising that the local beauty scene has hit a new low because, in the past, there have been many unpleasant happenings taking place at these so-called beauty pageants.

On several occasions I have, in my articles, mentioned that the state, or some responsible authority, should step in and monitor these events – lay down rules and guidelines, and make sure that everything is above board.

My suggestions, obviously, have fallen on deaf ears, and this is the end result – our beauty pageants have become the laughing stock the world over; talk show hosts are creating scenes, connected with the recent incidents, to amuse their audience.

Australians had the opportunity of enjoying this scenario, so did folks in Canada – via talk show hosts, discussing our issue, and bringing a lot of fun, and laughter, into their discussions!

Many believe that some of these pageants are put together, by individuals…solely to project their image, or to make money, or to have fun with the participants.

And, there are also pageants, I’m told, where the winner is picked in advance…for various reasons, and the finals are just a camouflage. Yes, and rigging, too, takes place.

I was witnessed to one such incident where I was invited to be a judge for the Talent section of a beauty contest.

There were three judges, including me, and while we were engrossed in what we were assigned to do, I suddenly realised that one of the contestants was known to me…as a good dancer.

But, here’s the catch! Her number didn’t tally with the name on the scoresheet, given to the judges.

When I brought this to the notice of the organiser, her sheepish reply was that these contestants would have switched numbers in the dressing room.

Come on, they are no babes!

On another occasion, an organiser collected money from the mother of a contestant, promising to send her daughter for the finals, in the Philippines.

It never happened and she had lots of excuses not to return the money, until a police entry was made.

Still another episode occurred, at one of these so-called pageants, where the organiser promised to make a certain contestant the winner…for obvious reasons.

The judges smelt something fishy and made certain that their scoresheets were not tampered with, and their choice was crowned the winner.

The contestant, who was promised the crown, went onto a frenzy, with the organiser being manhandled.

I’m also told there are organisers who promise contestants the crown if they could part with a very high fee (Rs.500,000 and above!), and also pay for their air ticket.

Some even ask would-be contestants to check out sponsors, on behalf of the organisers. One wonders what that would entail!

Right now, in spite of the pandemic, that is crippling the whole world, we are going ahead with beauty pageants…for whose benefit!

Are the organisers adhering to the Covid-19 health guidelines? No way. Every rule is disregarded.

The recently-held contest saw the contestants, on the move, for workshops, etc., with no face masks, and no social distancing.

They were even seen in an open double-decker bus, checking out the city of Colombo…with NO FACE MASKS.

Perhaps, the instructions given by Police Spokesman DIG Ajith Rohana, and Army Commander, General Shavendra Silva, mean nothing to the organisers of these beauty pageants…in this pandemic setting.

My sincere advice to those who are keen to participate in such events is to check, and double check. Or else, you will end up being deceived…wasting your money, time, and energy.

For the record, when it comes to international beauty pageants for women, Miss World, Miss Universe, Miss Earth and Miss International are the four titles which reign supreme.

In pageantry, these competitions are referred to as the ‘Big Four.’

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