Gather round, children; it’s time once again to hurl insults at that bastion of smug insularity, the New York Times. In today’s Metro section there’s a touching story by Corey Kilgannon about a NYC doctor, Ian Zlotolow (a gold star, incidentally, to anyone who can explain to me the morphology of that name, which is clearly based somehow on Slavic zlat-/z(o)lot- ‘gold’), who first treated and then adopted a boy from Sierra Leone. So far, so good, but in an attempt to dramatize the boy’s change of surroundings, the reporter produces the following:
Early last year, Lansana spoke only his tribal dialect, Mende, and hoarded food in the house. He had never been to a city, watched television, flushed a toilet or taken a shower. He had never had a real change of clothing.
But once in New York, the boy picked up English quickly, and, with his magnetic personality, made friends just by walking down the block…. When some West African cabdrivers and a college professor engaged him in dialect, he ignored them.
His “tribal dialect”? Excuse me? Mende is a language, just like English and French and all those sophisticated languages spoken by Times reporters and the people they sip aperitifs with. It is, in fact, one of the two major languages of Sierra Leone (along with Temne), with around 1.5 million speakers; it’s an offshoot of the great Mande family of West Africa, which was producing epics when the ancestors of most Times reporters were chomping on radishes and waiting for Chaucer to come along and give them a literature of their own. (Apologies to devotees of the Ancren Riwle and Layamon’s Brut.) Tell you what, next time you interview Nelson Mandela, why don’t you ask him to say a few words for you in his tribal dialect? I’ll bet a good time will be had by all.