Worlding Englishes

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Whose English Is It Anyway?


 

“CashApp - That’s Money.” Kendrick Lamar & Dave Free, pgLang, 2022.






Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.

From Genesis 11:1-9.








I took off our language and wore my English, like a mask, so that others would see my face, and therefore yours.

From On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong, 2019.








In the process of transformation from Indian to “brown Englishman,” I found that I had lost not only my freedom but also my culture and individuality, and I have been engaged ever since in search of my self, my identity. Where between the heart and the mind had it been waylaid? Slowly, through the years, light began to filter through the pictures of Delhi to which I turned for my past.

From Raison d’être, Ahmed Ali, 1993.



    It begins with a closeup. We see the skewed shadow of a man against a glossy white wall, its volumetric silence broken only by his energetic voice. He says:

Hey, bro, let me tell you what had went down. I was two bands away from getting, bro, whole barber shop, bro. Come on, mama. Bro. Peanut gonna call my phone talking about. I just got paid. I looked at the phone. You just got paid? What?! Man, where the dice at? I'm ready to shoot. We can roll. Last time I shot with it, 1300 in my pocket. Easy. Off top.

As he speaks, the shot widens to reveal a Black man leaning against the railing of a balcony. To his left, sits another Black man, the Pulitzer Prize and multiple Grammy award-winning rapper Kendrick Lamar, who asks: “What happened?” The man replies:

What happened? Man? Peanut is what happened. Had me hot on my mama. Hot. Seven, seven, seven. Back to back to back to back. Bro, I was mad. He was all in my bag, in my pockets and my whole Duffy. I was ready to get out.

The camera continues to zoom out. We now see an elderly white man sitting to the left of Kendrick: the billionaire Ray Dalio. Three men sitting on a black wrought iron balcony, framed against the pristine white walls of an apartment building. Kendrick turns to Dalio and says:

Actually, what he’s saying is, he saved up his money to get a local barber shop. He then made a friendly business wager with Peanut and hoped to secure more money for his business, but eventually losing it all with one roll of the dice. Ray, what you think?

“I think his problem is volatility”, Ray replies, using a slew of high-handed financial jargon to encourage the man to diversify his investments. Lamar promptly translates. “Basically, bro, what he's saying is, slow money wins the race”.



    In reviewing this exchange, consider: what compels Lamar to interpret on both men’s behalf? One would assume they are speaking the same language. Yet, Kendrick chooses to translate the Black man’s African American vernacular (AAVE) to a version of English that his white companion can understand. There’s a relative ease in the way he carries out this translation: this role is clearly not new to him. In fact, one could argue that his translation isn’t even linguistic: it’s sociocultural and heteroglossic, telling of the epistemic imaginations that both men inhabit. One man’s “wager” becomes another’s “dice”, meaning transferred across signs even as its extra-linguistic value is not, demonstrating a hybridity and internalized hierarchy within the English language and an unequal demand for translation amongst its variegated users. Ask yourself: how often are you compelled to translate your English? And, by contrast, who is?

    Put simply, all Englishes are not made equal; their social implications (and applications) are marked by distinct ethnoracial histories—haunted by vestiges of colonialism, feudal stratification, and slavery—that pervade into the contemporary moment and inform a divergent constellation of subjectivities and material realities. To borrow from Derek Gregory and Braj B. Kachru, this colonial present informs the appropriation and pluricentrification of the English language into multiple World Englishes, fractured across an unequal exchange of linguistic centers and peripheries.

Excerpts from Citizens of the English Language: Sociolinguistic Perspectives on Postcolonial India, MA Thesis, Prateek Shankar, 2023.