Mind Your Spelling, Please

September 30th, 2009 | by addis portal |

B. Mezgebu

30 September 2009

Addis Abeba — The gaggle of boys and girls, sitting at the back of the mini-bus were obviously discussing on the future of their education, come the New Year. Besides, during that week, the result of one of the numerous national exams was announced. And so English words were generously sprinkled in the animated conversation. But one word stood out as far as I was concerned; the word certificate, because the students wrongly pronounced it as certefecate. This was not the first time or the first bunch to say it wrongly and I could have left it there.

But this bunch was impressionable, young students and I said, “What the heck, I am going to point it out to them that the way they say it is wrong and tell them the right one.” It was safer to be polite, of course, and I also mentioned that their teachers should have pointed it out to them anyway. The response was mixed. Some thanked me indifferently. Others seemed not to give a damn, one way or another.

A response from one student that seemed to me the most commonly held view was put in a form of a question: what difference does it make which way we pronounce it? What the question implied in my judgment was something to the effect: Why bother and take the trouble to enunciate a word when everyone concerned understood what it meant, anyway. I didn’t have a ready answer to that. So when they stepped out from the taxi, I couldn’t be sure whether they will ever attempt to say certificate instead of certefecate from then on.

A few years back, I happened to be in Nairobi for a government sponsored workshop. Just outside my hotel, I was having my shoes polished by a shoe-shine boy. It was not uncommon in downtown Nairobi to find shoe-shine men who spoke English. I decided to find out for myself and picked a subject, not randomly at all. I picked politics because it was election time in Kenya. Arap Moi, the then president of Kenya was the topic. I asked the boy what he thought about the man. He answered, “The president will have to go because old-age was catching up with him”.

I still vividly remember that conversation because of the phrase, “old-age catching up with the president”. The young man’s politics was certainly wrong. Arap Moi went down for other reasons, and not because of his age. But his English was perfect and so King’s English. It was the first time I had heard the phrase. And that from a shoe-shine boy.

It doesn’t not in any way follow that all Kenyans speak English or that all who do speak it adequately. That particular incidence only goes to show that even shoe-shine boys could speak English and at that level of efficiency. Clearly, young people in that country must be making efforts seriously to speak the language as well as they can.

Do we make such serious efforts to speak the English language here? Difficult to say, when you see or hear some of the silly but avoidable mistakes we make . Let me give you one typical example. It is the word welcome. You find it spelled at many restaurants and other respectable places, as wel-come or well-come as if it were two words instead of just one. I find myself under a bit of unease under such circumstances and always try to bring it to the attention of the owners. You try to remonstrate the first few times, but get used to it after that, so it is just business as usual.

But more egregious errors committed in this respect are made by novices in the government media, such as the English Service of Radio Ethiopia and sometimes on E.TV. Often I wonder whether some kind of couching was not possible and some rehearsal before airtime.

Names of international dignitaries and celebrities are routinely botched. The most unlucky is the governor of California, and the former “Terminator”. The Tiananmen Square is another. This is one of the most wrongly spelled and wrongly pronounced. As a whole though, as an international city, Addis deserves better fluency.

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