Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Rain is Raining (An example of World Englishes)

When I began teaching in Namibia, it didn't take long before the rainy season fell upon us in full force.  In Namibia, the core of the rainy season lasts from January to March.  However, the true effects may not be felt until April or May, as the flood-waters from Angola rush over the border and fill the oshanas (the Ovambo word for flood plain).   

As 2010 got underway, the rains arrived late.  The rainy season in general was rather mild, or so I was told.  But by February, lines of dark clouds would suddenly burst onto the scene on a daily basis.  There was no better place to feel the intensity of the rain than from inside the classroom.  Since the roof to all the school's classrooms were sheets of corrugated metal, the sound of something hitting it – whether it be a tree branch or small droplet of water – would echo loudly throughout the room.  In the middle of my lesson, the rain might start tapping the metal roof intermittently.  I’d elevate my voice a few notches.  If I excelled at anything, it was projecting my voice throughout the room.  Yet the rain kept coming and the competition was on.  I’d try to carry on speaking, pretending to ignore the sound of water falling from the sky.  As the rain began to come down harder and louder, one by one it would grab the learners’ attention away from the lesson.  I was losing. 

Streams of water would rush off of the room and splash into an already flooded courtyard.  I talked louder, but as the clouds truly unleashed their full power, it ceased to be much of a competition.  The learners couldn’t hear a word I was saying.  Heck, I couldn’t even hear myself.  At that point I just stood there waiting for the rain's burst of energy to dwindle.  Sometimes it’d take a few minutes before I could properly resume the lesson.

One time, after a heavy downpour, the pelting sound of the rain subsided and a grade 11 learner in my English class, Walter, raised his hand.  I acknowledged his wish to speak.

“Mr. Wes, when the rain is raining we can’t hear anything.”

“Yeah, I know,” I said.  What did he just say?  I asked him, “Did you say the rain is raining?”

“Yes, the rain is raining,” he replied. 

“I don’t think that’s right,” I told him.  I always tried to be diplomatic when correcting the learners’ speech instead of just telling them, “You’re just flat out wrong!” because some of the learners were a bit sensitive since English was supposed to be one of their first languages.  “What you mean to say Walter is, ‘It’s raining.’”   

“Ooh, sir!” he said in mild protest.  The use of ooh in Namibia was another unique part of their English vernacular.  They said it frequently when beginning a sentence.  I was somewhat bothered by it in the beginning.  To me it sounded strange, but it was something I just had to get used to.  Walter continued, “I think it is you who is wrong.  In Namibia, we say 'The rain is raining.'” 

Other students confirmed Walter’s assertion.  To them, the rain was, in fact, raining.  The learners became more active and interested in this discussion since my authority of English was being questioned.  More people rallied to Walter’s side with similar comments.   

“Of course the rain is raining.”

“Look at what the rain is doing now – raining!”

“Ooh…Mr. Wes, how can the rain not be raining?”

It was 43 against 1.  Therefore, I didn’t stand much of a chance.  Worse yet, I was caught so off guard by this that I couldn’t explain that it was improper English.  In three years of teaching English, I’d never been questioned as to why this is.  To me, you just always say, “It’s raining.”     

The pronoun it is a singular neuter pronoun that can be used to describe any physical or physiological subject and/or object.  According to it’s Wikipedia page – that’s right, I’m citing an open-source reference – the pronoun also serves as a place-holder subject in sentences with no identifiable actor.  In this case, the pronoun it is called a dummy pronoun, whereas it does not refer to any particular agent.  An example sentence of this use would be – drum roll, please – It is raining.

At the time, I was the one who looked like dummy since I had no idea that a dummy pronoun even existed.  All I told them was that it is a generic reference to the weather.  But this isn’t even correct.  I then asked them if it’s possible in other cases as well, such as the snow is snowing.  To which, I received this response.

“Ooh, Mr. Wes, we have never seen snow.  So how can we know if the snow is snowing?  But I’m looking at the rain raining right now.” 

I couldn’t fault them for this logic.  Empirical evidence is often the best way to formulate your thoughts and opinions.  But English grammar is fact, not opinion.  Or is it?  This was my introduction as to a completely different usage of English.  And there were many more instances to come.  I discovered many differences in both pronunciation and vocabulary, which often caused great confusion on my part.  Who’s to say exactly where, and to what extent, an imperialist form of proper English should extend its authority?  Arguably, you could say that areas like rural Namibia are asking for English autonomy.  In some ways, it seems like proper English is powerless because even in my little village of Omungwelume, the rain is raining on its parade.

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