THE ENIGMA OF ENGLISH

By Reginald Massey

img168Today English is the only truly global language. It is in fact an interplanetary language; the first man on the moon spoke to his fellow Earthlings in English. Hence we must take serious note of what men such as the philosopher Radhakrishnan and the statesman Rajagopalachari told us. They believed that English was a boon bestowed on India by the British. Radhakrishnan specified that the Raj gave India Shakespeare, the Authorized Version of the Bible and the limited liability company. India is thus a major English speaking country. Possibly more people in India speak English than in any other country, including the USA.

Apart from its Anglo-Saxon and Latin roots English takes words from many languages. There are hundreds of ‘English’ words that were taken from India. Consult the classic compilation Hobson-Jobson by Colonel Henry Yule and A.C. Burnell. If truth be told English is a mongrel language; it does not subscribe to notions of purity. It is continuously evolving, hence its vast vocabulary and amazing range of references and subtle nuances. That makes it an easy language to learn for basic communication and, at the same time, very difficult to master. For example, I just wrote ‘continuously evolving’. I could have said ‘continually evolving’ and got away with it. But I did not, because what I meant to say was ‘continuously evolving’.

Forty years ago Michael Grade (now Lord Grade) of London Weekend Television commissioned a sitcom series called Mind Your Language which became a super hit not only in Britain (18 milllion viewers) but in many other countries as well. The writer Vince Powell was a former stand up comic and the director was Stuart Allen. The series was set in a London adult education college where an assortment of foreign students were trying to learn English. More correctly an Oxford graduate, Mr Jeremy Brown, played by Barry Evans, was trying to teach English. The classroom was usually rowdy and the well meaning Mr Brown was no disciplinarian. The college head Miss Courtney (Zara Nutley), a formidable martinet, would often drop in to see how Mr Brown was doing and was invariably disappointed.

Front row:  Jamila Massey, Zara Nutley, Barry Evans, Francoise Pascal. Second row:   Robert Lee, Tommy Godfrey, Dino Shafeek, Pik-Sen Lim, Albert Moses, Jacki Harding.                                       Back row:  Iris Sadler, Ricardo Montez, George Camiller, Kevork Malikyan.
Front row: Jamila Massey, Zara Nutley, Barry Evans, Francoise Pascal. Second row: Robert Lee, Tommy Godfrey, Dino Shafeek, Pik-Sen Lim, Albert Moses, Jacki Harding. Back row: Iris Sadler, Ricardo Montez, George Camiller, Kevork Malikyan.

The students were a lovable lot. Their de facto monitor the Italian chef Giovanni Cupello (George Camiller) insisted on addressing Mr Brown as ‘Professori’ and burst out with ‘Santa Maria’ and ‘Holy Ravioli’ when surprised. The au pair Anna Schmidt (Jacki Harding) was ever conscious of German efficiency but just couldn’t get her tongue round her ‘V’s’ and her ‘W’s’. Chung Su-Lee (Pik-Sen Lim) worked at the Chinese Embassy and flashed out Mao’s Little Red Book which she loved to quote. Danielle Favre (Francoise Pascal), also an au pair, was keen on Mr Brown while the other young men were keen on her. Maximillian Andrea Archimedes Papandrious (Kevork Malikyan) was from Athens and worked for a shipping company. He and Giovanni were flatmates and the duo were the top students of the class. Jamila Ranjha (Jamila Massey), a sari clad Indian housewife, had hardly any English and sat knitting with immense concentration. She addresssed Mr Brown as’Master-ji’, the suffix ‘ji’ being a token of respect. The other students were Juan Cervantes (Ricardo Montez) a Spanish bartender, Ranjeet Singh (Albert Moses) a turbaned Sikh from India, Taro Nagazumi (Robert Lee) a Japanese electronics executive, Ali Nadim (Dino Shafeek) a Pakistani salesman, Ingrid Svenson (Anna Bergman) a Swedish au pair who like Danielle had a crush on Mr Brown, and Zoltan Szabo (Gabor Vernon) a Hungarian student who constantly paged through his English phrasebook.image1

The tea lady was Gladys (Iris Sadler) who was always warm and helpful and the college caretaker Sid (Tommy Godfrey) was a Cockney born and bred who constantly confused the students by speaking in rhyming slang. The college was a veritable Babel but nevertheless packed with laughs. Great stuff. Well written and directed, and well acted. The excruciating puns, the clever word play and double entendres caused gusts of groans, grins and guffaws.

The actors’ gang gelled well. English somehow lends itself to sitcoms and that is why similar style TV serials in other languages have been as dull as ditchwater. The series was sold to Australia, New Zealand, India, Ghana, Kenya, Pakistan, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Singapore and Nigeria. Interestingly all parts of the former British Empire which is now the Commonwealth. It was telecast in Canada and some TV networks in the USA and one of the first British TV series shown in South Africa after the British Actors’ Equity boycott was lifted. Luckily DVDs of Mind Your Language are still available and many episodes can also be viewed on YouTube.

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