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Sorry Or Not

A friend recently asked me, for the umpteenth time, to correct his English. My answer will always be the same. Never. 'Correct English' is an aberration in my books. In my syllabus, I included a linguistic diversity statement that reads:

Diverse languages and dialects are welcome in this classroom. As we communicate with one another, keep in mind that the reader/listener should work as hard as the writer/speaker in the communication process. This means that we will listen patiently, work to understand one another, seek out clarification when necessary, and avoid finishing each other's sentences or correcting grammatical errors unless invited to do so.

I teach fiction, and not grammar or composition and while it is arguable I should be concerned about my students' English, I prefer to think that I'm trying to make you a better storyteller. You need language to be that, and not English. Yes, there is a distinction. Long story.

I find the English language to be problematic, most of it being a case of insufficiency. It has a knack for watering down everything. And for an intense person like me, English is mostly flimsy, feeble, renders me inarticulate. It makes too much room for the unsaid.

I moved to America a few months ago, and I now find the word sorry very tricky. In Nigeria, when I bump into you, I say sorry. When you bump into a wall all by yourself, I say sorry too. But these are two different types of sorry. In the first instance, I'm apologizing. In the second instance, I am empathizing. Sometimes, there could be a third instance, an entirely different one where I say the same word but I am sympathizing.

Thing is, a typical Nigerian knows the difference based on context. But an American? No. People are always surprised when I say sorry. Because it automatically amounts to an apology. They look at me weird. Some tell me, no you are good or it is not your fault. Of course, it is not. There is such a cultural divide with this single word, that I have had to stop being (overly) polite and empathetic because it makes me look too eager to please.

(There is another conversation to be had about the cultural dearth of empathy here and maybe it is why this vocabulary and its semantics largely lack words that convey the said empathy. But that is another conversation.)

My first language is English. I speak it, write with it. I think in it, dream in it unless it is my grandmother I'm communing with. But when I feel stuck, I switch to another language, find the exact words (of which there is an abundance), and then translate back to English.

In the Yorùbá language, if you bumped into a wall, I would say pẹ̀lẹ́. If I bumped into you, I would say máà bínú. Pẹ̀lẹ́ translates to sorry, in the sense of an apology but máà bínú literally means don't be angry (Google Translate says "I'm sorry" but...) This translation, like many other translations, is largely insufficient. When I say máà bínú, I am asking you to not be mad because you have every right to be. Anger, in this case, is too streamlined, too precise an emotion for the weight of máà bínú. I am taking responsibility for my actions and any emotions that they might cause. I am, therefore, appealing to those emotions and I ask to assuage them. There is a world of difference.

This is very reductive as the nuances of language are more complex. If I told my sister I had a long day, they would say pẹ̀lẹ́. It becomes sympathy. Sometimes I say pẹ̀lẹ́, máà bínú at the same time. I am apologizing and taking responsibility at the same time. For a non-native speaker of the language, I see how the lines can be blurry. For me, English makes it all or nothing and it is never all or nothing.

Someone recently did me dirty and they have tried to apologize multiple times. The more they used the sorry word, the more upset I became. It is not enough. It never will be. They felt I wasn't seeing how sincere they were being, but for me, I didn't need an apology. For me, they weren't taking responsibility for what they did. They weren't letting me hold on to my right to be angry, sad, overwhelmed etc. They were just apologizing. Maybe if they had said I'm sorry instead? Still doesn't do it.

English is the ghetto.

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