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Opinions of Sunday, 15 June 2014

Columnist: Tawiah-Benjamin, Kwesi

Do you care for Pizza? No please, I don’t take Alcohol

There are truths–the kind of things that are generally known to many as incontrovertible and unmistakable. These are ‘constants’ and ‘absolutes’ that do not change. Former US Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, calls them ‘known knowns.’ But there are also truisms–those things that are so evident and obvious that they there is no point saying it again. Sometimes, we juggle the two together when it serves our purposes, to form our own impressions of what is likely to be the most appropriate representation of what is true about a people. We make fun of certain tribes in Ghana and mimic their pronunciation of words in the English language. We associate a poor usage of the laterals (r and l) with a particular tribe while we identify other ethnic groups with their laughable rendition of ideas and concepts.
Recently, I dashed into an Irish pub in Labone for my favourite Budweiser after a hard day’s work. My job involves crossing the ‘t’(s) and dotting the ‘i’(s) in manuscripts, newsletters and other official publications. It also involves shortening longer and complex convoluted sentences, to present a clear, simple idea for easy comprehension. I am careful not to be simplistic. Mostly, I struggle in doing this, and that is when my own inadequacies and incompetence stare me in the face. The most terrifying part of the job is when you have to answer to press queries on radio or television. You appreciate public speakers better when you are given a recording of your voice.
People in my line of work are generally known to be good speakers. And that is true. Well, it is a truism, if you know what I mean. But they work at it, often standing in front of a mirror to practice their body language, pitch of voice, tone and their delivery. It is a particularly difficult undertaking that requires tact, some intelligence and sheer gut. I am an apology of a speaker; I have remained an abecedarian after pouring ten years of my life into the business. So I am often not too quick to make fun of how other people say what, or judge their proficiency in a language that is very foreign to us.
Well, sometimes you have to let yourself go and join in the fun. What can come can come, as Ayittey Powers would say. Or if you prefer Spanish, you could complete the thoughts of Doris Day: ‘Que sera sera.’ My beer buddies in the Irish pub are editors of newspapers, brand managers, radio presenters and businessmen. Mostly, we discuss politics and how the political managers of this country are making a veritable joke of their mandate. When the beers begin to work on our pot bellies, we settle for some jokes to clear our minds of SADA, SUBAH, Woyome and all the judgment debts.
The joke last week was a pitiful one. It is true that many of us are poor users of the English language, but when you hear a smartly dressed young woman in a restaurant ‘butchering’ the language of the English people with superfluous confidence, you either wink to the guy next to you or laugh it away with a sip. How would anybody think pizza contains alcohol? The odds are that it is either she doesn’t know what a pizza is, or she obviously didn’t understand the question. It is quite clear she has an idea of the kind of damage alcohol can do to her body. I have heard a similar tale of a beautiful lady who wouldn’t consider drinking any kind of mineral, but was quick to point to a bottle of Fanta as her favourite ‘aphrodisiac.’ Does she know what an aphrodisiac is?
The truth is we the so-called ‘lettered’ people do not have a better knowledge of what a pizza is, or what an aphrodisiac could be. Have we not bastardised the English language enough in our newspapers and on radio, even as professionals? Thank God for online dictionaries and spell checks. Google would cough up anything you want–from sample job application letters to templates on proposals for tenders. You may even fetch the name you want to give to your child from the internet. Yet, our proficiency levels are frighteningly low. Well, at least that is what our professors say.
I recently gave a presentation on audience analysis and brand management to a group of professionals. As is my custom, I prefaced the presentation with a little exercise on English language. The slide rolled two sentences and asked the audience to spot the difference: The first was: ‘He is better than me’. The second sentence was: He is better than I.’ There was no consensus on this, as we all tried desperately to dig into the bowels of our secondary school lessons on parts of speech and objective pronouns, to tell the difference. In the end, we agreed that the second sentence may be right because you would usually say ‘I am’, as in ‘He is better than I am.’ But there were other questions: What about ‘He is better than him’? Or shall we say “than he is”?
The use of colloquialisms has simplified and ‘demystified’ the English language, but it hasn’t made it any easier for some of us. In America, ‘He is better than me’ is a colloquialism that is acceptable in standard usage. Here in Ghana, we are not exactly sure whether to adopt American colloquialisms or stick to the British standard. Recently, I heard a radio news presenter struggle to pronounce the word ‘consortium.’ He pronounced the word differently at several stages of the presentation. Are we ‘organizing’ or we are ‘organising’? If we have decided to maintain our British ‘favourites’ instead of the American ‘favorite’, then let’s ‘organise’ things well.
Whether we like it or ‘yes’ (it used to be ‘whether we like it or not’), we need to improve our proficiency in English language for international commerce, academic scholarship and indeed for jobs in ships on the high seas. Thankfully, we have accepted that Ghanaian English (the kind of English which confuses ‘Take the lead’ with ‘Go ahead’ and ‘I am coming’ (to mean ‘I will be with you soon’) is alcohol in our pizza.

Kwesi Tawiah-Benjamin