Every generation makes the mistake of believing that it sees the world through fresh eyes simply because it is seeing it for the first time.
I remember believing that I could see things my parents couldn’t see because they were looking back while I was looking forward. My eyes were young and clear; theirs were clouded by history. I assumed that this was one of the unassailable privileges of youth, and I continue to insist that our children are wiser than we are to the extent to which they use this privilege to imagine a world superior to the one they inherited: kinder, perhaps, or more considerate of its sustainability; or more richly endowed with possibilities for growth, expression and community.
They are anyway older than us in evolutionary terms, the latest models of human beings that will replace the tired and outdated versions of our generation.
But I no longer believe that children look at the world that first surrounds them through eyes of innocence.
On the Pietermaritzburg campus of the University of Natal in 1972 you could buy t-shirts with Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s face on the front and his dictum on the back, “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”. We didn’t need to read Of the Social Contract, or Principles of Political Law (1762) to understand what he was getting at. The political and social chains that held apartheid in place were not always figurative.
For another five rand you could get Che Guevara or Jimi Hendrix, and for every two Bob Dylans you got a Free Mandela, for free.
Over at the Agriculture Faculty on the other side of campus the same t-shirt entrepreneurs were selling portraits of Ian Smith, the Prime Minister of Rhodesia, with the slogan “Not in a Thousand Years” on the back.
The idea that Rousseau’s use of the word “everywhere” might extend to the domain of language occurred to me only seven years later when, for reasons I’ve written about elsewhere, I left South Africa and found myself teaching English, History, Mathematics, Biology and Bookkeeping at St Joseph’s Minor Seminary in the lowlands of Lesotho. I knew nothing about Biology or Bookkeeping but nor did the boys, which is why no one noticed.
I ended up teaching all these subjects after the Rector suspected the headmaster of disseminating the propaganda of the outlawed Basotho National Party and called in the army. By the time the two of them arrived the headmaster had disappeared into the impassable Maluti Mountains, and White Rose, the only other teacher who could speak English, had found a job as a dealer in the Lesotho Sun casino. So the Rector took over the teaching of Sesotho and Catholic Studies, and I was left with the rest.
I’m not sure that they learned anything from me, but I learned from them that language is a prison. It struck me at the time as a very significant discovery. I saw it as my duty, then, to break the chains of Sesotho and lead them into the light and liberty of English: and, with the blind arrogance of the coloniser, I failed to see that I was as much a prisoner of my language as they were of theirs.
They say that experience is the comb that life gives you when you’re bald. I think the opposite. I think experience is the process of unlearning the preconceptions of youth, of abandoning the rigid constraints of the comb so that your grey hair can grow wild and free.
If we remember at all the things that seemed important to us when we were young we tend to dismiss them as trite and irrelevant, as if those few deeply felt epiphanies were the usual growing pains on the path to maturity, like so many teenage pimples, and nothing to be wondered at. But as soon as you do that, as soon as you trivialise them as adolescent, you’re the bald man with the comb or the dowager with too much lipstick, impotent and helpless, bereft of imagination, a hair’s breadth away from intellectual death.
We may forget the things we learned, but if we treasure the feeling we got from them, if we believe in the essential legitimacy of the feelings they inspired, we will be primed to receive them, with a greater depth of understanding, when they appear again in a different form.
The first observation Emerson makes on his visit to England in 1833 is this: “The young scholar fancies it happiness enough to live with people who can give an inside to the world; without reflecting that they are prisoners, too, of their own thought, and cannot apply themselves to yours.”
This stopped me because it summed up so succinctly my own difficulty in understanding the difference between my English heritage and the English culture that surrounds me in England today. But it crystallised into an examination of the English language only when our friend Elaine introduced us to the boyfriend of her brother’s ex-wife.
He turned out to be a New York-based French journalist who had friends at Charlie Hebdo and who had spent most of his career working as a foreign correspondent in more countries than he could remember for a variety of French newspapers and news agencies.
We were having a drink at the pavement tables outside Hemingway’s in the hope of catching the last of the summer sunshine when the conversation turned inevitably to Trump. From American politics it turned to European politics, from Merkel and May it turned to global politics, and from Syria and Iraq it turned to the political legacy of colonialism. At about which point it turned into an uncomfortably competitive discussion about the difference between French colonialism and British colonialism.
I said I thought France’s legacy in Africa had in the end been less materially damaging than Britain’s. He shrugged a Gallic shrug and muttered something about the incompetence of French imperialism in Algeria. I suggested that the long view of history might regard the incompetent kind as the lesser of the two evils. I thought this deserved a smile. But he stared into his Bloody Mary and said, “We thought we could do it with language. You did it with railways.”
It would have taken too long to explain why I was more than a little ambivalent my imperialist roots, and since the sun had resigned itself to trying again another day, we left it at that.
But the conversation got me thinking about language, culture and colonialism, which in turn got me wondering why there isn’t an English word to describe an individual who has been colonised. Given that close to a quarter of the world’s population had been colonised by Britain at the beginning of the 20th century, this seems more than extraordinary: it seems deliberate.
A colonist is someone who colonises. A colonial is someone who has settled in a colony but continues to speak the language of the colonial power and observe its cultural traditions, but now with a veranda. The word most commonly associated with the word colonial is splendour.
When a colonist adopts the language and culture of the colonised people, he or she is said to have gone native. Setting aside all the ugly historical associations that native brings to mind, and South Africa has less than an unfair share of them, the word describes an indigenous individual who has not yet adopted the language and culture of the colonial power.
This leaves us to group those natives who have adopted the language and culture of the colonist together with those who haven’t and call them the colonised, implying, verbally at least, that neither of them could become colonials no matter how hard they tried. And the blanket description simultaneously denies the right to existence of the individual within the group, which is the coloniser’s equivalent of David Cameron’s “swarm of migrants”.
The colonial might not make a distinction between the early adopters and the very reluctant laggards, but the very reluctant laggards do. The adopters are the sell-outs, the traitors, the collaborators, the co-opted, the Uncle Toms — the “Oreos” who are black on the outside but white in the middle. When the colonial becomes aware of the division he will naturally exploit it to his advantage. This is as true of the Belgian Congo as it is of Vichy France.
You can’t talk about colonisation without talking about politics any more than you can talk about apartheid without talking about race. But my interest in this is personal, not political. I am a descendant of colonists, I speak the language of colonisers and observe, more or less, the cultural traditions I inherited from them, but I am neither a colonist nor a colonial. Technically speaking I am a native-born South African, which means only that I happen to have been born in a country which was called South Africa because only a geographical description of the territory could sustain the British colonial fiction that they left the place the way they found it — as if it were ever homogenous, coherent, united or a nation.
During the apartheid years every South African boy and girl, black or white or of mixed race, was obliged to learn Afrikaans at school. Someone once told me that Afrikaans was to Dutch as the language of the Katzenjammer Kids was to German, that is, childish, crude and limited. As much as we loathed having to learn Afrikaans, and as much as it was hated by black South Africans for being the language of the oppressor, I now think that’s unfair.
To understand Afrikaans is to see Africa the way the Voortrekkers saw it. Divorce it from its political associations and it becomes a window through which you can see the wide plains of Transvaal veld before it was the Transvaal, hear the thunder over the Free State before it became the thunder of guns, and smell the approach of hail before it arrived as a fusillade of bullets from the barrels of Lee-Enfields. Of course it was flawed by the distorted glass of Calvinism, and of course it was never mild or innocent. But even after its universally public disgrace there’s still a poetry in it, a sense in its percussive rhythm and its chopped meter of having been cut out of the continent in chunks of leadwood and kimberlite, and dried like strips of eland flesh in the Limpopo sun.
I could speak Afrikaans if I had to. Unlike Andy, I was sent to boarding school too soon for me to see the world through Zulu eyes. Much later I got to learn a smattering of Spanish, and in the process of trying to learn it I learned that (apart from the mystifying difference between es, esta and está) it could be learned without requiring me to adjust my essentially European view of the world and what it was made of.
I understood this because I had tried to learn Sesotho, and in the process of trying to learn it I found that I wouldn’t be able to learn it without a radical adjustment to my essentially European view of the world and what it was made of.
Because Sesotho, like the other Bantu languages derived from the same root, divides the phenomena of the perceived world into several distinct classes. The earliest of these root languages had five groups of nouns: one for persons, one for plants, one for fruits, one for animals and one for things not included in the other groups. We know, too, that the pre-colonial Bantu languages of southern Africa like Sesotho and isiZulu each had as many as two thousand words devoted exclusively to describing the markings of cattle. In 1979 the boys at St Joe’s knew only one of them, tolodi-patswa, because it featured in a Sesotho nursery rhyme.
You will already begin to appreciate how different the world must have looked to native Africans before the arrival of the Dutch and the British in 17th and 18th centuries. But it’s even more enlightening when examined in detail.
Each of the different classes of the perceived phenomena of the world is denoted by a signifying syllable attached as a prefix to a given noun. So if a word is preceded by mo- or ba-, you know the noun that follows will be a single human being or a group of human beings. A mosotho is then an individual member of the Sotho culture, and basotho means “the Sotho people”. There is an entire class devoted to kinship, denoted at its most respectful by bo-. There is a large class of non-human things, such as trees, dogs and implements, usually indicated by di-, and a class of abstract concepts denoted also by bo-, which links abstract concepts to the most respectful aspects of kinship. Then there are three different classes of things that are not-quite-human and not-quite-non-human, like “days” and “secrets”. The prefix se-, as in Sesotho, indicates that the language is not only not-quite human and not-quite-non-human, but also that it is not an abstraction.
This is a very different existential state, and the point of it is this — that once you step outside of a European language you also step outside the unconscious assumptions made by European languages: the assumption, for example, that there is a strict division of class between abstractions and the objects of physical reality, that the objects of physical reality can be divided neatly between the animal, the vegetable and the mineral, and that nothing exists in the divide between what is human and what is not human except that very first strand of self-replicating DNA.
Perhaps there is no better example of this unconscious bias than the unthinking ease with which we distinguish by context the appropriate choice of the definite or the indefinite article. When I write “the sun” I’m confident that you will know I’m talking about that particular glowing object at the centre of our solar system. If I write “a sun” you will know immediately that I’m drawing your attention to a conception of the universe wider than our solar system, or perhaps to Star Wars, which amounts to the same thing.
My boys at St Joe’s were utterly bewildered by the idea of “the boy” being something qualitatively or contextually different from “a boy”, and the extent of their bewilderment was a measure of how radical a change they knew they would have to make to their conception of the world around them if they were to learn to speak English the way I did.
The more I thought about how to teach them the difference, the closer I got to appreciating that my casual use of the definite or indefinite article privileged my point of view over theirs because it was a choice made from my perspective, as if, by implication, the way I saw the world was the way they were required to see the world. It was only after trying to imagine a world in which everything was both a thing and the thing that I began to understand that they were seeing the world not through the eyes of their individual selves, but through the eyes of their community. And I felt suddenly and profoundly humbled.
The idea of language as a prison stayed with me, and it continued to inform my relationships and my politics. And it came back to me with a renewed force when we got home from Hemingway’s with Fabrice’s remark still nagging at my conscience.
The literature on cultural imperialism is vast and well beyond the limits of my capacity and my endurance. So I’ve drawn my conclusion from just two amenable facts.
In 1883 the French created the Alliance française pour la propagation de la langue nationale dans les colonies et à l’étranger, the French Alliance for the Propagation of the National Language in the Colonies and Abroad. More than half a century elapsed before the English created their equivalent, the British Committee for Relations with Other Countries.
All I know about the Alliance today is that it continues to teach French. But I’ve worked with the British Council, and my impression of that experience is that British culture and the English language, to the extent that they matter at all, are employed in its activities abroad only as the sharp end of a very large commercial wedge. Which is not to question the sincerity of the players who staged Love’s Labours Lost in Kabul in 2005. It is only to recognise that Shakespeare, like Harry Potter, James Bond and Bob the Builder, is a franchise, and its value isn’t counted in Afghani epiphanies but in pounds returned to the UK economy.
It’s clearly impossible to measure the effect of either of these two institutions, culturally, socially or economically, on their respective colonies, or, for that matter, in terms of their return on investment to the coloniser. But the world of 1883 was very different from the world of 1934, so to read the stated aims of the two institutions in the context of the period in which they were written is to discover a world of difference between the intention in the minds of the French founders of the Alliance and the intention in the minds of the English founders of the British Committee for Relations with Other Countries.
The stated purpose of the Alliance was to “propagate” the French language. The unstated intention is revealed in the addition of “Abroad” to “the Colonies”. The clear implication of this is that the influence of France, if it was to be extended beyond the already considerable territories of The Second French Empire, would be achieved by the adoption of the French language outside of the colonies under its jurisdiction, including, presumably, colonies in the hands of competing colonial nations, as well as in countries like Russia and the United States. Moreover, the envisaged result of the propagation of French around the globe would not necessarily, or even desirably, take the master-and-subject form of empire, but rather of a loose federation of the willing — an alliance in name and in practice.
We must presume, too, that the French in 1883 were more or less satisfied with the results of their language-first approach to the colonisation of West Africa or they would otherwise not have deemed it a strategy fit for the purpose of further expansion.
The stated purpose of the British Committee for Relations with Other Countries was to “support English education abroad, promote British culture and fight the rise of fascism.”
The first thing to note is that the emphasis here is on “English education”, not explicitly the English language; and that “English education” is to be understood as something different from “British culture”, a distinction which makes sense only if “English education” is a coded substitute for the domestically unpalatable “English culture”.
This tension is echoed in the politically overt intention to “fight the rise of fascism”, and again in a name that suggests, in “Relations with Other Countries”, a clear subversion of the diplomatic function — both of which must have sat uncomfortably with the pretended notion that it was first and foremost a cultural organisation; and all of which would soon be resolved and forgotten when the name was hastily changed, in 1936, to the inscrutably named British Council.
But the significant point in all this is that the French — in 1883 when France was well on its way to establishing itself as the 6th largest empire in history — believed that their language was primarily a culture and only secondarily a means of communication: that to speak French was to become French, as if all of the sensibilities, tastes and political intuitions held dear by France, the nation, were embodied in French, the language.
The British Empire is considered to have peaked in 1920 when it owned 23.84% of the land area of the planet and became by some distance the largest empire in history. By 1934 it was a case of stopping the haemorrhaging — of consolidation, not expansion. And the agenda of the British Council was transparently to aid that consolidation: not to consolidate the cultural legacy of Empire through “English education and British culture”, but to shore up “Relations with Other Countries” against the inevitable day when Empire would no longer guarantee Britain’s exclusive access to its colonies’ assets and markets.
English to the British was a means of communication. Its function was Utilitarian, not cultural; Bentham, not Arnold. It was an instrument, not a goal. If in retrospect the achievements of the British Empire can be judged as not wholly pernicious it is thanks only to the least ruinous of the British institutions that took root in its colonies, notably the rule of law and the laws of cricket. English literature, as we saw in the case of Nelson Mandela, had the effect of binding certain of the educated classes in the colonies to the notion of a post-Shakespearean, pre-industrial, para-Wordsworthian, rural England of steam-engines, kind nannies, witty aristocrats and grateful peasants, but even these connotations and associations have faded like watercolours in sunlight.
Emerson, the outsider, noted this about English colonialism1856: “They have assimilating force, since they are imitated by their foreign subjects; and they are still aggressive and propagandist, enlarging the dominion of their arts and liberty.”
There are vestigial remnants of that great literary legacy in English idioms, proverbs and figures of speech. But nothing of Englishness survives in the language now spoken by the world outside the white-skinned people of the former British colonies. There are more English speakers in Germany and France than there are in England. There are 20 million more English speakers in Nigeria than there are in England, and as many English speakers in Italy, Japan and the Philippines as there are in England.
The sub-continent may be the exception. The sensibilities of the 19th century English novel are arguably more present in Vikram Seth, Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy than they are in J.M Coetzee, Patrick White or Paul Auster. This is meant only as an observation of English cultural continuity and discontinuity; not as a judgement of value or worth.
The French made the mistake of believing that culture was more important than transport. Railways were legalised in France only in 1842. The rail network connecting Paris to France’s other major cities was completed only in the 1870s. In their colonies you got Verlaine instead of trains.
There were 500 miles of railway track in England in 1838. By 1855 that number had increased to over 8,000. The great ambition of the British Empire wasn’t to annex South America and Asia by bringing Jane Austen to the rain forests and Turkmenistan. It was to see the fulfilment of Rhodes’s dream of building a railway line from Cape Town to Cairo.
English was never the sharp point of British imperialism. English just happened to be on board the ships and boats and trains and horses and wagons that brought the imperial armies to the continents, islands and hinterlands where wealth lay unexploited beneath the bare feet of the natives. And no one had more ships, boats, trains, horses and wagons than the English.
It was an accidental passenger, like the virus in the dried mud on the soles of the boots of a farmer who’s unaware that he’s carrying foot-and-mouth disease from East Sussex to Sydney. It took root and flourished in harsh climates and unfamiliar soil because it is both sturdy and greedy. Its Saxon nucleus is as tough as an acorn, but it has a mysterious osmotic shell that sucks in those words and phrases from other languages that serve to make it tougher. It fed on Celtic, Latin and Greek, it gobbled up the Romance and the Germanic languages, and it spat out the parts it didn’t like. It waited only for the internet to spread its contagion to the four corners of the earth. English is the floating pennywort of modern languages.
I used to think the contempt of the English for the French could be explained by Freud’s “narcissism of small differences”, that special variety of contempt we reserve for the people, football teams and nations who are closest to us geographically or culturally. It was Emerson, again, who obliged me to review this assumption:
“France is, by its natural contrast, a kind of blackboard on which English character draws its own traits in chalk. This arrogance habitually exhibits itself in allusions to the French. I suppose that all men of English blood in America, Europe, or Asia have a secret feeling of joy that they are not French natives. Mr. Coleridge is said to have given public thanks to God, at the close of a lecture, that he had defended him from being able to utter a single sentence in the French language.”
Freud’s analysis is beautifully anticipated in that first sentence. But Coleridge’s behaviour suggests to me that he and his influential contemporaries were all too conscious of the seductive power of French, and they knew only too well that Napoleon’s ambitions posed less of an existential threat to English culture than the language he spoke. For all of its powers of assimilation, flexibility and utility, or possibly because of them, English would be no match for French if it came down to only a verbal battle of acculturalisation.
Not that it would have crossed the minds of the early English imperialists to trust the job of territorial aggrandisement to their language. By the end of the 17th century the Honourable British East India Company had acquired the lion’s share of the world’s trade in cotton, silk, indigo dye, saltpetre, and tea. By the middle of the 18th century it had acquired the Chinese opium industry, all of the subcontinent and most of East Asia, and by 1803 it had acquired a private army of 260,000 mercenaries, the largest force of men and arms in the world.
English came with them, and English stuck. And by the time the French understood in 1883 that language could be used to capture the hearts and minds of the colonised, English had established itself as the de facto language of all the markets that mattered.
Which is not to say that the French, the Germans and the Belgians were less vicious or venal than the British in their exploitation of the conquered. The difference is only that history is written by the victors. The English won the race for the East not by a head or a country mile, but by several million heads and several million square miles of country. And they would win the Race for Africa by a reef of gold and a mountain of diamonds. So they got to write a lot of history.
If this proves anything it’s that the battle for hearts is usually won only at gunpoint, but that the battle for minds is won the first time a native replies in your language instead of his.
Culture may be the tie that binds, but language is the chain that attaches the slave’s ankle-iron to the prison wall.
And the child loses her innocence the first time she says, “a”.