Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Critical Mom's Guide to J.K. Rowling and the English Language

Here is the postscript I just found on a German-language review of J.K. Rowling's new novel:
P. S.: Wer die englische Originalausgabe liest, sollte darauf gefasst sein, dass die (Unterschicht)Figuren nicht gerade feines Oxford-Englisch sprechen! 
Folks do tend to put such remarks in a postscript.  Yes, I'll translate in a second, but first, I want to point out that this form of communication strongly resembles that of the patient walking out the doctor's door after a fifteen minute interview, popping his head back in for a nanosecond to say, "By the way, is it normal that I throw up every morning?"  In other words, both are symptoms of an illness.  Now, here's what that p.s. said:  "If you're reading the English original, you should be warned that the (lower class) characters don't speak the fine Oxford English!"  The reviewer puts "lower class" in parentheses, apparently having figured out that One Doesn't Say That, even in the Fine Oxford English.   The Fine Oxford English is "received pronunciation," a term invariably tied to money, status, and high social class.  But I'll let you in on a little secret.  The Fine Oxford English is barely spoken in Oxford anymore.  Let's have a little perspective.  The only person whom I know here in Germany who really speaks Oxford English is the Nigerian father of one of my younger son's kindergarten classmates.  As everyone knows, Nigeria was a British colony, and as post-colonialist scholars have been pointing out for at least the last thirty years, one of the typical reactions of colonized peoples is to identify with the aggressor, that is, to try to become more English than the English in the spirit of "if you can't lick 'em, join 'em."  For the pure tones of Oxford English, hang out in the provincial regions of the former British India, or in Nigeria.  The metropolitan picture--where the action is--differs.  Considerably.  In Mumbai, population 20.5 million and growing, the big bucks are in American English jobs.  One is expected to overcome that Oxford twang and pick up a midwestern one, in order to hop on to that well-paid computer assistance job, the one where you speak to a native of Ohio in his or her accent, after identifying yourself as Sandy or Susy--never as Baijayanthi or Chakradev. But where there's a glimmer of nostalgia for the former conqueror, there's still respect for Oxford English.  So my Nigerian friend asked me if I'd teach him American black English because his friends were making fun of him--he sounded too "Oxford." Me? With my Annie Hall accent?
Admittedly, a battered version of Oxford English is spoken in German elementary schools:  it would be more accurate to say that a form of English fondly imagined by German teachers to be "Oxford" is taught there.  Badly.  As when my daughter's teacher told her little students:  "Look TO my mouth!"  Pronounced "mouf."    My son tells me that his English teacher once said he sounded a little funny.  She herself imagines that she  sounds British.  She has a heavy German accent--the pronounced hissing "s" in the word "is," the "ch" sound instead of a "j," the uttering of "Sponge Bob" so that it sounds like "Spunch Bop."  She is however able to linger on the "o" in the phrase "roasted fox," in a way that sounds British.  I can ape an Oxford British accent but like Bartleby I would prefer not to.  It sounds funny.  It sounds like girls who grew up on Park Avenue and said "Mummy" instead of "Mommy" so everyone would know that they went to the right schools.  It sounds faintly undemocratic.  And it sounds less lively.  I love, no adore, the endless varieties of American slang.  And I want my son to know all of those things and love them too--not sound like a bad imitation of a Brit.  Do I halfway believe in the superiority of the British accent myself, me with my Annie Hall accent?  Is it only my resentment toward my British colonizing forbears that makes me proud of the way I pronounce an "r" instead of ignoring it or turning it into an "ah," as in "wheah have you been?" 
While the rest of the world was watching CNN and BBC, that is.  Have German teachers of the English language noticed that "radio English" went out with the radio?  In a world where people pick up the news from their iPads, no one is speaking Oxford English, except natives of the small city of Oxford, population about 165,000, located on that tiny island whose nostalgia about its vanished empire seems to have infected the English teachers of Germany.  Besides, the most recent statistics--which are eleven years old, dating from 2001--say that at least 19% of the population of Oxford was born outside the U.K.  Don't bank on Oxford English selling too much longer, when American companies are investing in teaching American accents to the Indians they hire to answer American calls to computer help lines.   Or now that the Oxford University Press is advertising Global English on several websites.   
Now, back to J.K. Rowling’s new novel.  Some are calling it "Mugglemarch," which I'd take as a great compliment, but Michiko Kakutani is complaining that there's no "narrative sorcery."  Aw, come on.  I can guarantee you one thing.  Rowling did not grow up speaking Oxford English.  Hurrah for Edinburgh!  If the city of Edinburgh had conquered most of Africa and all of India in the 19th century, would German children be taught to speak with an Edinburgh accent?  I guess we'll never know, but I can't wait to read The Casual Vacancy.
P.S.  And I'm so glad she didn't bump off Ron Weasley.  

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