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Review by Romola Rassool & Kaushalya Perera

Review of A Dictionary of Sri Lankan English for the SLELTA Quarterly
by Romola Rassool and Kaushalya Perera, English Language Teaching Unit, University of Kelaniya

Beginning with a few scribbled observations regarding the unique way in which the English language is used in Sri Lanka, Michael Meyler ended up by making a valuable contribution to Sri Lankan English by publishing “A Dictionary of Sri Lankan English”.

Though there is more acceptance of the fact that we speak a variety of English that is unique in that it has been influenced by the indigenous languages of Sri Lanka, such as Sinhala, Tamil, and Sri Lankan Malay, there is still some reticence to accept Sri Lankan English as a variety in its own right. Perceptions of the variety of English spoken in Sri Lanka range from considering it a ‘broken’ or corrupted version of the language, to considering it a mixed variety or ‘Singlish’, to the acceptance of it as a fully-fledged variety in its own right. Admittedly, this acceptance of Sri Lankan English as a variety has a limited following. We are yet to arrive at the sort of linguistic pride that varieties such as Indian and Singaporean English have garnered even within our own Asian region. Scholarly work on Sri Lankan English by academics has contributed to debate on its status. However, acceptance by the public has been slow in coming. It is in this arena that Meyler’s Dictionary contributes. The author himself is aware of this and has stated in his Introduction that his aim is to “promote the acceptance of SLE as one of the many established varieties of English as an international language.”

As a dictionary, this publication goes beyond merely giving the meaning(s) of a word or phrase, to giving examples of usage as well. These include quotes from everyday speech, references in Sri Lankan writing in English, and samples taken from newspapers, etc. The illustrations of phenomena unique to Sri Lanka not only add interest but will be useful to foreigners living and visiting Sri Lanka, to whom this is intended as a glossary. A useful key to informal or formal usage, colloquial terms and even dated usage is indicated and is useful.

Traditionally, a dictionary is taken as the authority on meaning, spelling, and usage of words in a particular language. Therefore, the danger is that this compilation might be viewed as “the final word” in speaking and writing English in our country. Meyler himself is very clear that his dictionary is not intended as a prescriptive work but a descriptive one – “the intention is to describe the way in which the English language is used in Sri Lanka, without attempting to make any judgment on whether it is ‘correct’” (Introduction, pages xxx-xxxi). However, we wonder whether a dictionary can ever get away from prescriptive usage. Once it is away from the compiler, the reader has total control. For instance, if you consider the word ‘case’, it is defined as a “person (often with a negative connotation)” and the following examples are given: “a boru case”, “a pandan case”, “a mara case” etc. In the hands of a student of ESL, the fact that Meyler has made this entry may be taken as a validation of the use of this word in a formal context.

In that case, teachers and students must be conscious of the fact that this is not a dictionary that will decide your ‘errors’ for you – a ‘controversial issue’, as Meyler says - but one that will give you an idea of language as it is used here and now. Since this dictionary is useful for teachers, learners, scholars, and researchers, it is curious that Meyler has used his own system of phonemic transcription and not an internationally accepted one (such as the IPA).

It has to be accepted that compiling a dictionary of language used in a multilingual community is not an easy task, hence Michael Meyler’s statement that this was a long time in the making. One of his most important achievements is the inclusion of words of Tamil, Malay and other linguistic origins, which is also evidence of the richness of linguistic exchange in Sri Lanka. As Meyler states, this dictionary gives us an idea of how different our own variety of English is from other English, most of all British English. This is an important distinction since Manique Gunesekera has shown that even amongst teachers of English there is a myth that we, in Sri Lanka, use British English. In the Dictionary, the compiler has stated specific instances when there are differences between the British and Sri Lankan usages, which will be very useful.

Meyler’s dictionary also gives rise to another issue that needs discussion – at which point do we consider a word to be Sri Lankan English (and therefore, in the English language) and when do we think of it as an act of code-switching or code-mixing, common among multilingual communities? For example, would we accept ‘kiribath’ and ‘milkrice’ as equally Sri Lankan English? Do we use the dictionary and figure out different ways of using the two words? These and other such questions need answering as we move on with more landmarks in Sri Lanka English, such as this Dictionary.

Choosing which language or variety of language one wishes to communicate with others is a political act. As a child, one may not have a choice regarding the languages one speaks in, but in adolescence and adulthood, language usage, adoption of a particular ‘accent’ or the decision to code-switch/ code-mix are matters of politics and identity. Meyler’s dictionary comes at a time when there are many discussions taking place on the use of English in Sri Lanka. There are concerns regarding the teaching of Sri Lankan English and the way it is used. It is also evident that English as used by cross-sections of society in different ways, chat groups, TV channels, and advertising give rise to heated debate. For those of us involved in English education in this country, this is a valuable addition because it makes way for a public debate on some of our concerns. Most importantly, publications like A Dictionary of Sri Lankan English go a long way in validating the English that we use in Sri Lanka by showing us our own rich and unique history and the creativity that has stemmed from it.



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