25 April 2009

a response to my critics re: "not the queen's english"

I had intended to suspend the blogging and focus on schoolwork for a while, but it's come to my attention that my "not the queen's english" entry was reposted on a Cameroonian website and has generated a lot of pretty heated commentary- including accusations of ignorance/stupidity/idiocy (which I don't really mind) and racism (which I do). Some of the commenters expressed hope that I would respond, so here I am.

First of all, I want to assure my critics that I intended no disrespect toward Cameroonians, and I regret that I have offended some readers. I believe that many of the people who wrote comments have misunderstood the spirit and intent of my post. But taken out of context, I can see how what I wrote in those few paragraphs came across as inflammatory and condescending. There are also parts of the post, the "Special English" paragraph in particular, that in retrospect I should have worded differently.

The reference to the "Queen's English" was obviously the source of a lot of misunderstanding (see posts by Afrika/Unitedstatesofafrica, Samm, oyibbao, and Atanga Belmondo). As commenter Steve Jackson pointed out, I am not British, but American, so I myself do not speak "the Queen's English" either. I meant "Queen's English" as an ironic rhetorical device, not as any kind of statement of how people "should" speak, and certainly not as any kind of statement of a pro-colonial attitude. I do not see language in terms of better or worse, right or wrong. I agree with commenter oyibaao's observation "language is a means of communication that is influenced by time, place, and events." To borrow a phrase from the Bible, language is for people, not people for language.

So why would I write about differences in the way Cameroonians and I use English? As commenters Caitlin, Ras Tuge, Steve Jackson, Le Chiffre, and facter all surmised, the main motivation was humor. I write about this stuff because it’s funny—not in the sense that I am mocking Cameroonians or viewing myself as better than they are, but because language differences are one of the great sources of humor in travel. On this blog, I have written about the differences between British and American English here, here, and here, and about New Zealanders' accents here. In my previous blog, I wrote about differences in the way Americans and Filipinos use English. I was no more trying to insult Cameroonians in the post under discussion than I was trying to insult Brits, New Zealanders, and Filipinos in those other posts. If more Cameroonians had a chance to visit Britain or the U.S.—and I regret that so few have that opportunity—there would be things they would find funny about the way Brits and Americans speak. And I can assure you, Reex Flames, that during 3 weeks in Cameroon I was the subject of plenty of mockery because of my speech, dress, and all of the other things that make us different from each other. But I was a guest in Cameroon, so I don’t think I have any right to complain.

I think a lot of commenters missed that some of the humor was directed at me and at Americans. As commenter Caitlin correctly remarked: “To me it comes across that the author is laughing at himself for his assumption that he'll be able to communicate in an English-speaking country when in fact the type of English may not be anything like his own.” I also made reference to the “ugly American” stereotype: the tendency of Americans who speak only English to assume, absurdly, that if they just speak slowly and over-enunciate enough that non-native speakers of English will understand them. As I said, the “Special English” paragraph was not the best written, but I was merely pointing out the irony that "ugly American" English has some similarities with the version of English spoken in Anglophone Cameroon. I emphatically was not suggesting that the pace or lilt of Cameroonian English is evidence of stupidity—though I can see how it might have come across that way in the original post. (In fact, I was grateful that people spoke English slowly to me so that I had a chance of understanding them.) Just speaking for myself and my own background, I am glad that, as commenter facter put it, we Americans “can joke about ourselves.”

I wanted to highlight the excellent point made in different ways by Naneh, Reex Flames, nadine, and routine, about the multilingualism of Cameroonians. I came away impressed by how many languages Cameroonians speak, especially because I come from a culture that (sadly) does not put much value on learning other people's languages. I am a little bit embarassed that I only speak English fluently, though I have enough French, Spanish, and Tagalog to get by. The average Cameroonian is far ahead of me on language abilities.

I also appreciated Papa Mama's point (even if it was made in a sarcastic way) about the internet leveling the playing field between people in different parts of the world. Papa Mama points out that the internet enables Europeans and Americans to be exposed to the thoughts of Africans. To that I say, amen and hallelujah. I am grateful that we are able to have this dialogue, which in earlier times would have been impossible, and I hope that we will be able to learn something from it.

Finally, I strongly object to the insinuations made by Reex Flames (for which, to be fair, Reex Flames later apologized) and Unitedstatesofafrica that I went to Cameroon with fantasies of “helping” or “making a difference” by bringing the light of my Euro-American brilliance to the Africans. If you read more of my blog or talked to me about development efforts, you would know that I am very skeptical of arrogant Western attitudes about helping lower-income countries. My motivations for traveling were to learn about Cameroon and Africa, and to spend time with a special someone. As a few commenters pointed out, I was writing for my friends and family, and I had no intention of offending a whole bunch of Cameroonians. But since I did, I am grateful for the opportunity to clarify and continue the discussion.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am a cammeroonian writer & with rapt interest went thru the polemical motions inadvertently and benignly stirred by ur article on CamE, as cameroon english is called in advanced linguistic parlance,and i am satisfied by the graciousness of this terse, measured & settling reponse. It comes off teaching results of dialogue of cultures thru the yet volatile instrument of language. We've all been neccessarily schooled by the outcomes of that innocuous, yet unintentionally offending (mark the eschewing of the adjective 'offensive')piece of yours, meant even for the restricted reading of your intimate ones but unfortunately accessible to the wide cyber-universe!It was a good stay in cameroon, i suppose from the tone of the write-up, and i wish u many more 'returns' and more 'correct' gab!

wirndzerem g. barfee