Monday, January 18, 2010

Matters of Grammar

Validation for my grammatical errors, hooray!

When I was in Wesley Girls' High School, the worst crime you could commit was make a grammatical mistake while speaking. It was not your teachers that made you miserable. It was your classmates.

An error in grammar was like firing a shot. You make a mistake and someone yells out "Bullet!" Girls duck under tables and yell "Well dodged!" so loudly that the cry is taken up in neighboring classes and everyone wants to know who this terrible person is. Such is the passion when the colonial language becomes sacred. St Peter might very well deny you entry into heaven if you make a mistake. And woe unto you if you're a teacher. You'll have a memorial long after you've gone.

My typing teacher once slipped and said:

"Let the paper faces you!"


She was doomed. From that point on, if we saw her coming, we yelled "Let the paper faces you!" We ran into hiding, laughing.

Another teacher said, "One, two...three; both of you, follow me." Ai!

The interesting thing is that some of this comes from our own language. For instance, I speak Fanti, and in Fanti, there's no gender in pronouns. So if I want to say "He is coming", I'll say, "O reba."  (Actually, the letter is a C turned backwards, but I can't get it here)

'O' stands for 'he'. I'd say the same thing for "she." So when I'm speaking English, I tend to mix the two up. Not because I don't know the difference but because, psychologically, I think of he and she as one. I can't get rid of it. I've tried. It happens more frequently when I speak, though rarely when I write. My American-born children laugh at me when I tell a story. I get interrupted with "Mummy, I thought it was the man, now you're saying she", whereupon I snap, "You know what I mean!" Sometimes, the poor sods are genuinely confused.

So I find myself making a deliberate effort to think about gender. But when I'm excited, all bets are off. He/she bullets fly out of my mouth. Hearer beware. But yesterday, I felt so good when, at a Ghanaian church, the pastor did it:

"When the woman came to me, I looked at him and.." I looked at my daughter. We giggled. Now, the pastor was Ashanti, a people known for interchanging the "l" and "r" sounds in their dialect. The younger generation manages very well, but the older ones trip now and again. Without warning, he said:

"Let me erabolate my point further".

I knew I was in God's house and it wasn't his fault for saying erabolate when he meant to say elaborate, but I couldn't help laughing.  With affection, of course.

Shiboleth, Siboleth; who cares?


  1. I understand your problems with grammar. I'm learning Spanish and I find my grammar going down the toilet. It's easy to mix up the two languages. I had a similar problem when I learned sign language.


  2. Ah, Ann, glad you understand! Foreign language learning isn't easy!

  3. I have the same problem with German, in which inanimate objects have genders. I just can't wrap my head around calling a table a man. To me, it's an it. Half the time I forget and use the gender neutral anyway. Old habits die hard, I guess.

  4. Not to worry, I'd have been giggling too.

    We have something similar,in that older people from the country sometimes refer to individuals as 'him' irrespective of sex.

    Then there is the challenge that English is the official language, yet many of us speak Patois a lot better than we do English. Of course, by the time many of us get into school, it's a major effort to get subject and verb to agree. :)

  5. I'd think having everyone around you make fun of you for a mistake would make it nervewracking to talk at all. :0) Especially the shy kids. :) But I see the advantages, too, like having the common mistakes pointed out enough that others learing the language might be able to dodge bullets by example, maybe.

    I think there should be laws against making fun of anybody smart enought to speak more than one language. :)

  6. Oh, Bisi, great blog.

    I laughed out loud at: "Let me erabolate my point further".

    Think of it this way--you speak more than one language. Look how many people can decimate one language: Their Native one! (and do it daily!)

    My Puerto Rican mother-in-law often says 'her' or 'she' when referring to BOTH of her twin daughters at the same time.

    I never asked, and I know the Spanish language has different genders, but my assumption was just that they both popped out of her uterus together, so they were sort of BUT ONE GET ONE FREE and in her mind they were one! LOL

    I've always found it endearing, though. ;)


  7. that's BUY one get one free....

    My fingers were moving too fast! ;)

  8. @Candice: How interesting! I agree. I speak French and Spanish. All the Latin languages are the same, with this gender thing. I can sort of understand why a knife would be masculine and a mouth feminine, but a table? A fork? I don't blame you.

    Jayda, I love it when you point out the similarities between Ghanaians and Jamaicans. It always makes me laugh. I wondered if they did that in Jamaica too, sellers who try to peddle their wares through car windows.

    Aww, Tina, thanks for the positive words. I can always count on you to be feisty for a good cause! :)

    Jeni, I totally agree; I think that she thinks of them as one. You know, I didn't notice the mistake until I read your second comment. Just goes to show how much psychology plays a role in the way we speak, hear and read, hahaha!

    Thanks, guys, for the laughs.

  9. I'm learning French and am all in a tangle over it. They say English is a terrible language to attempt to learn; I think I must be lucky to have been born into it. No way would I remember all the pesky rules!!

    My hat's off to you, Bisi - and to any who speak more than one language. :)

    ~ Corra

    from the desk of a writer

  10. Yes, Corra,

    In the western world, English is the most difficult language to learn. French is actually easier, if you can believe it, and Spanish is easier than French. :). Sometimes, that's the problem.

    I look forward to meeting you one day and speaking French with you! :)

    Always a pleasure,


  11. Bisi, as always I love your stories. I got a great laugh out of this one. I can just hear you saying some of those things with that sweet high-pitched voice of yours. LOL Nicely done my dear.

  12. I wish my language was better. My grammar is not perfect. But I at least I stopped with 'ain't'.