Confessions of a Copy Editor




Language is about as real as it gets. All we really have is communication, the means by which we express ourselves. It is not the real us that shows who we are but the manner with which we convey ourselves. Appearance is the key, as opposed to essence, because no one ever really gets a glimpse of that.

As such, human beings came up with language long ago. No one knows how this happened. There are speculations. Some, like the highly respected Noam Chomsky, suggest that language erupted out of thin air, most probably because human beings just had to absolutely come up with it to survive. Others suggest it was far less spontaneous, and language developed with centuries of gradual trial and error.

Written language is even more spectacular, and linguists concur, a far more recent phenomenon. In fact, there are still those in our midst who cannot read or write.

The illiteracy rate in Ethiopia is staggeringly high. Much of the population, although fluent in speaking Amharic or other regional languages, has no idea what this article is trying to say. The other half, on the other hand, have all but abandoned their local languages. They watch Hollywood movies, listen to hip-hop music, read English novels, tweet and facebook like an American and these days, even speak in English.

All of this is quite an admission from someone who happens to be writing in English. For a nation full of people who are effervescently proud of never being colonised, it is strange we have taken to English like fishes to water, and abandoned our homegrown languages. If the Europeans had known long ago that they did not have to spend all that ammunition, transport and manpower on the process of invasion, but simply send their books and movies and music to every youngster they could find, well, I doubt even Emperor Menelik II would have fended such a tactical attack.

Nonetheless, it is important to ask, is English even spoken properly?

We hear on the streets, in taxis, in our homes people, especially youngsters, converse in what seems like a pretty good American accent, with a satisfactory grammar.

But how many of those people are truly articulate? How many for instance can make a conversation with someone who has a British accent, or can decipher the words of a rapper without looking at the lyrics, or make sense of the usually fast moving dialogue in any situation comedy?

Even more important is written English, especially perhaps in today’s world. What with all the emails and social media people use to express themselves by, to write English in a coherent manner – at the expense of sounding dubious – could be the difference between, maybe not life and death, but success and failure.

It is said that there are close to a quarter of a million words in the English language. This is perhaps surprising to some, but not if we take into consideration that English is a national language in at least one country in every continent. If there is any doubt over Great Britain’s influence over the world in the 18th, 19th and early 20th century, all one has to do is take a look at the pervasiveness of the English language into every nook and cranny of the planet.

So, it does not come as a surprise that there are words people have merely heard of, or even if they have, struggle to put into use. The problem goes further than laymen having a problem writing or speaking English properly. All one needs to do is look at posters, newspapers, adverts or even English teachers trying to make heads or tails of the language.

On my way to work, I recently spotted a poster advertising a photo and video studio. Under the name of the studio’s title, which for the sake of discretion will not be named here, in big shiny graphics, were the words, “We shot weddings, birthdays and graduations”.

I assumed they meant “shoot” as opposed to “shot” and owners of the shop obviously assumed the wording is pitch perfect, as the poster is still standing in one piece.

But who cares really, as long as they give good service?

In the wake of ransomware attacks, and other recent digital ills, experts suggested that the only cure next to an advanced antivirus or an upgraded operating system, is mastering the English language. As most of these computer viruses are spread through malicious emails, usually disguised as emergency notices from internet mail services, the best way to hinder them would be to carefully check the wording. Hackers, it seems, do not have as good a grasp on the English language as the mail services who hire editors to check grammar and spelling.

In other words, lack of a fluency makes us less and less authentic. This does not just apply to potentially hazardous emails, but to our daily lives too. The less we can express, the less we are. In a world predicated upon appearance, either inner or outer, language serves as the metaphorical dress and makeup we put on. Whether that language really represents who we are is up to the speaker or writer.

The fact that most of the youth is moving away more and more from local languages is sad, but it would be ever more so if we do not become at least mediocre English speakers, condemned to spend our days in the loneliness of bad punctuation and hollow emoji.



By Christian Tesfaye
Christian Tesfaye (christian.tesfaye@addisfortune.net) is Fortune's Op-Ed Editor whose interests run amok in both directions of print and celluloid/digital storytelling.

Published on Sep 02,2017 [ Vol 18 ,No 905]


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