Ruwan, one of the tuk-tuk drivers we regularly use, whose spoken English is very good (for a tuk-tuk driver) proudly showed us the other day a book he was studying. “Now I am learning written English” he announced and pointed at a list of alleged English colloquial words and phrases including such handy gems as “Gadzooks!” and “Capital idea, Sir!” Our one-time Project Manager when we lived full time in the UK had a superb grasp of English grammar and spelling – at least as good as mine and I’m a bit of a stickler – but his vocabulary was firmly locked in the colonial era. “The ladies are yet resting after their strenuous visit to Sigiriya Rock” he once told us when we asked on the phone after some guests who were staying at Jungle Tide, our guest house near Kandy. We imagined them loosening their stays and being gently fanned by a punkah-wallah. Sinhalese English – or Singlish – is partly based on a grammar and vocabulary that was already fading in post-war England.
But another ingredient of the alphabet soup that passes for English out here is Americanisms. It took us ages to learn to call mobile phones cellphones and we had a minor epiphany at the end of a frustrating month-long search for clothes pegs to hear they are called ‘clothes pins‘. Armed with this knowledge we were able to acquire some. A third component is a Sinhalese form of grammar which, at least in its spoken form, dispenses with little irritants such as tenses, prepositions and pronouns. Finally, Sri Lankans rarely use politenesses such as “excuse me”, or “please”. Pleasure and gratitude, or their opposites, are conveyed by facial expressions and body language. Which is fine except when using the phone, which is one reason I hate making and receiving phone calls.
Arguably, language is even more important in Sri Lanka than in most other parts of the world. Only here has a twenty seven year bloody civil war been fought over what boils down to a dispute over the dominance of a language native to nowhere else in the world as opposed to a language spoken by a minority in Sri Lanka and the population of a bit of southern India. “Why don’t they just agree to compromise and speak English?” complains Sally, my wife. “Then they might have some decent job prospects as well as not slaughtering one another.” Which is true and would be the solution in a rationally organised world but English is the language of the colonial oppressor and hated equally by militants on both sides. Language is heavily freighted and squashes common sense in its path.
This blog is not going to be exclusively about language, but the way that English is transformed, mangled, creatively developed (take your pick) will be a thread woven throughout, from creative literature to linguistic car-crashes. As well as shamelessly promoting my book Broke’n’English: Learning to live in Sri Lanka (available from Amazon ISBN 1974150208 and from Barefoot bookshops in Colombo and Galle price £7.95, Rs2,000/- and, if you must, $US10.50) the blog will continue the story of the cultural blunders, petty frustrations and minor victories of an Englishman abroad.
I’ll leave this where I started, in a tuk-tuk. Someone should compile a photo-book of tuk-tuk wisdom. I scribble down examples of the writings on the back of Sri Lankan tuk-tuks, many of them used in Broke’n’English. Other than simple advertisements they can be classified as follows (I do love to classify things, it puts me in a position of control, or so I imagine):
From the lectern: A lot of tuk-tuk drivers feel it incumbent upon them to proclaim the superiority of their religion over all others. Masha Allah. I am Buddhist, I proud of that (sic). Jesus loves you. Interestingly the Hindus don’t seem to go in for this kind of proselytising. And some, mindful of the multi-cultural nature of tourism, neatly hedge their bets with a selection of plastic figurines in the front – a cheery crucifixion scene, a chubby Buddha and a small Ganesh perched side by side. A secular equivalent praises Sri Lanka: Pearl of Asia. Well, possibly. Then there are the ones which sound like they are making political points, though quite what the points are is usually beyond me. Save the people, believe the country and you are one-man army. Wasting every second: symbol of future. Fighting on arrival; Fighting for survival.
Victim complex: Paranoia would seem to be rife in the tuk-tuk fraternity. My life is not your life (did I suggest it was? If so I apologise unreservedly. Stupid thing to have said.) Don’t play games with my heart (really sorry, I was just being friendly, I honestly have no desire to make you my sex slave, good sir). Take me as I am or watch me as I go (actually I’d rather just go with you to my destination and then pay you, I’d prefer not to get further involved if that’s OK with you).
Banal: Best exemplified by a common one: You cannot predict exact time of death (and your point is what, exactly?).
Jokes (or Jorkes): Back in the early days of tuk-tuk literature the jokes were about the three wheelers themselves. Off-road express. Colombo super-freighter. Kandy luxury travel. More recent attempts at humour have verged on the surreal: Sorry girls, memory full. Do jorke for love but don’t love for jorke.
The frankly incomprehensible: Jolly jib, dangerous life. Pain is the only thing that is telling me. Power of One. Minhaz: What have we done to the world? and Money go, money come; Man go, never come (maybe there should not be a space between ‘man’ and ‘go’ and the driver is lamenting the fact that it is not currently mango season).
Latino: For reasons I have yet to grasp a section of tuk-tuk drivers are obsessed by the politics and popular culture of Latin America and the Caribbean, and in particular by the film ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ which is acclaimed in various ways including Caribbean of the Pirates. Irates of the Caribbean. Pirates of the Car bean. Images of Johnny Depp vie with those of Che Guevara and Bob Marley. My absolute favourite tuk-tuk slogan, which features on the back cover of Broke’n’English, is Cheguvra want you ribel which is only translatable as ‘Che Guevara wants you to rebel’ by the image, posted on many a sixties student bedroom wall including my own, of the man himself in his bandana. Bob Marley runs him fairly close with Bob Marley, natural mystic.
There are, of course, plenty of straightforward ads, but even these can occasionally be intriguing. I got quite excited seeing an ad for a forthcoming arts festival before reading the small print and realising that it was to be held in Luxembourg. More intriguing still was an advertisement proclaiming One man three piece band for any occasion.
Ruwan’s own tuk-tuk, a smart black number with a decrepit toy monkey hanging in the windscreen, boasts: Any time good time, busy time sorry. And with that I’ll sign off as there are more important things to do in the run-up to Christmas than writing blogs.