Colombo Telegraph

So Who Are We Laughing At, Really?

By Malinda Seneviratne

Malinda Seneviratne

On Wednesday evening at Sooriya Village, while speaking on relationship-education, vulnerabilities of children, especially girls, in cyber space, what can be done, what is being done and what should be done, Hans Billimoria asked a question from the audience. ‘Did you get Sanath’s video?’ He pointed to several men and each of them said ‘yes’. He went on to talk about consent. Respect. Knowledge.

Had Hans asked ‘Did you get Dayasiri’s video?’ or else ‘Did you get that disce amuta disce discarde video?’ the chances are that everyone would have said ‘yes’. I am pretty sure that Hans could have then proceeded to talk of hypocrisy, arrogance, ignorance, elitism and misplaced notions of self-image. If he wanted to.

Salivation. That’s what it is all about. In both instances. There’s nothing to dissect in the eyes-wide-open, jaw-dropping, tongue-hanging-out thrills sought by whoever it was that posted the first video and of course whoever passed it around. The Dayasiri video is different. That’s Dayasiri Jayasekera, Minister of Sports.

Dayasiri mispronounced the Latin in the Royal College motto. He also dropped the ‘Esto’ of the Thomian motto ‘Esto Perpetua’. He stumbled. He struggled. He was reading a prepared text and perhaps the Latin parts were written in Sinhala. Maybe there was a typo. Maybe it was hand-written and maybe poor handwriting was what made the Minister of Sports struggle the way he did.

It’s all over social media. And it has generated a lot of comment. ‘He should have made sure of the pronunciation,’ is a point many have made. True. As a public figure and one with quite a few years of experience, he should have known better. ‘He could have spoken in Sinhala!’ some have observed wistfully. Should have, under the circumstances. Then of course there are those who are tickled to death by the whole affair. They laugh at Dayasiri’s mispronunciation. They ridicule his ‘poor English’ (what’s ‘rich English’ by the way?). Some even claim that the missteps, the struggles, the language-butchering and being unprepared are all indicative of general incompetence.

Who are we laughing at, really? Did those who laugh at Dayasiri on account of him not doing his homework, also laugh when other politicians messed up? Did they laugh at Mahinda’s gaffes and pretend they didn’t hear Ranil’s howlers and vice versa as per the ‘prerogatives’ of political loyalty? Is it only language-related screw-ups that they laugh at? I mean, when it comes to politicians jumping the gun, dropping bricks and murdering the queen, do we laugh out loud for certain gaffes, polite cough at others and feign deafness at yet others?

Dayasiri was tripped by pronunciation. It was not Sinhala. It was not English. It was Latin, a dead language! Around the same time Ranil Wickremesinghe talked about an ඉරටු තියෙන කොස්ස (literally ‘a broom made with coconut husks but [also] with ekels). He should have said ඉදල (ekel-broom). Dayasiri’s error was mild in comparison. But Dayasiri continues to be ridiculed, while the Prime Minister’s obvious unfamiliarity with the Sinhala language hasn’t prompted much comment.

Are all those who laughed and/or still laughs at Dayasiri perfect in their English and in their Latin? Does it make those who are good in English feel better when someone shows language incompetence? Is English synonymous with ‘smart,’ ‘wise,’ ‘clever,’ etc for such people? Is English-acquisition a defining and important feel-good factor in their lives and is it this that is being affirmed in a roundabout way by Dayasiri’s little word-trip? Is this a fallout of Puswedilla or is Puswedilla a product of all this or rather a piggybacking on this elitist language trip? Is it just that psychological hangup that makes some people call others godayas or yakkhos or, in recent times, bayyas? Is it a chip on the shoulder that prompts people to laugh at and ridicule mispronunciation, perhaps because they believe that mimicking the elite in this way would give them access to elite clubs?

In the mid 1970s, I listened to a talk given by my father, Gamini Seneviratne, at an event organized by an organization of English teachers. He was asked to speak on ‘The language of administration’. I remember him mentioning the Dutch, the Portuguese and British and the languages these colonial powers used in administering the island. His argument was that it is best to use the language of the people in the matter of administration. During the Q&A session a lady asked a question. I can’t remember the question, but I still remember her interjecting something that seemed strange to me then but which I later understood was a product of a common malady among English speakers in Sri Lanka. She caveated her question with the following: ‘We, the elite.” I remember my father brushing her off with what can only be described as kindness: “If that’s your self-image, there’s nothing I can say.”

I also remember my father giving a lift to English language educationist Douglas Walatara, who said with good humor, ‘I don’t think you really believe what you said Gamini.’ ‘I do,’ my father said quietly.

Self-image is the big story that’s missing in the splash over Dayasiri mispronouncing Disce aut Discede. And it is about two sets of people: those who think they are ‘elite’ (on account of English competency) and those who think they could get membership to elitist circles by a) laughing at those who mispronounce, and b) taking issue with the ‘Sinhala Buddhist Other’ that is the bugbear of English-speaking ‘elites’ at every possible turn.

A lot of people would have smirked when Sanath’s video was released. They were, in liking and sharing, disrespecting themselves. There are many who laughed when Dayasiri slipped. The truth is that Dayasiri just missed a step; those who laughed didn’t realize that they had been floored long before Dayasiri took the mic. And in the end, they all laughed at themselves, Kumar De Silva was spot on when he made this observation a couple of days later. Dayasiri was Dayasiri. Those who laughed at him appear to have some problem who who they really are.

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