Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Our most precious possession

Post-colonials and their children in Britain have reclaimed English and made it their own

Share
Related Topics

Our Prime Minister and his Coalition squires had to answer some tricky questions in China about their increasingly muddled immigration policies, which, depending on the day, case, person and place, appear to be tough and pragmatic, or unfair and cruel, or open and generous, or abstruse and mercurial.

Chinese millionaires are welcome of course, but not the poor. Yes please to high fee-paying university undergraduates; but no to those wanting to go to private language schools, which are all now seen, unfairly, as stopovers for illegal migrants and traffickers. Three years ago, polemicist Christopher Hitchens asked on Question Time: "What do we have that is better than our language?" We have 85,000 Chinese students in the UK. Many of them want our most precious product. Are we really going to deny them that gift?

I can speak four other languages which my children refuse to learn. Saddened by their indifference and wilful ignorance, I can understand why. I could not communicate the thoughts in this paragraph in Hindi, Swahili, Gujarati or Kutchi. English has infinite reach and depth. You grow into it; it grows inside you until it reaches your dreams.

And now, at long last, a fitting homage to this linguistic story – an exhibition on the marvels of English at the British Library. It takes us from its beginnings in the fifth-century, through the accretions and adaptations, the porosity that let in Latin, French and Germanic words, great English wordsmiths like Bede, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Johnson, Caxton's printing revolution and on to now.

There are many delights and surprises – "yobbo" goes back to 1921; "fat cats" to 1928, and "sleaze" to 1967. You can hear audio-versions of how English sounded in past eras. The Empire spread it and colonised liberationists' tongues – Gandhi, Kenyatta, Jinnah, Nkrumah. Subjugated nations appropriated the lingo, added music of their own, rhythms and miscegenated vocabulary.

Post-colonials and their children in Britain have reclaimed English and made it their own. There remain South Asian Britons, though, who fear Anglicisation and will not open up to infinite possibilities. What a waste. They cannot, thankfully, stop their young jumping into the inviting ocean that is English and the access that gives them to modern life.

Last week I went to see the buddy thriller Pune Highway, by the Indian theatre company Rage, at the Watermans Arts Centre in Brentford. I saw it again three days later. Playwright Rahul da Cunha exposes the degeneracy of contemporary, moneyed Indian society. Actors Rajit Kapur, Ashwin Mushran and Bugs Bhargava Krishna brilliantly play three friends with no moral compass. Their crude, pared down English lacks compassion or grace and becomes a metaphor for India's fast, thoughtless and furious globalisation. It is as powerful and challenging as Look Back in Anger must have been in 1956, or Pinter's early work. It is English again, breaking out and starting out a new trajectory in its unending history.

French and Italian don't have that capacity. David Crystal, world expert on English, told me it was because those languages opted a long time ago for strict protectionism, but ours is the opposite, with all doors and windows open.

The future looks bright then, until you notice those who use new technology without due care. Some crazed demons on Twitter believe anything goes. Written words matter and hold meanings beyond that narcissistic urge to send off instant thoughts. The Tory councillor who sent out a vile and scary message about me says it was a joke. After some thought I decided I will not press charges. My objections have been made and there is no need for more. Yet having read many blogs and tweets that followed the incident, I do wonder whether our manners and morals will survive and if English itself, the best thing about us, is now seriously endangered.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: A widow’s tale with an unexpected twist

John Rentoul
 

For all his faults, Russell Brand is utterly sincere, something politicians should emulate

Janet Street-Porter
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing