Caryn Gootkin considers how the use of capital letters can affect the meaning we convey and the sometimes embarrassing, often comedic consequences of their absence in spoken language.
My granny was Black. Now, before you tar me with the same paintbrush as Kuli Roberts and drag me before the Equality Court, allow me to explain. I mean no disrespect to black people. I am also not trying to diminish my whiteness – which is clearly apparent from even a cursory glance at my picture.
I hear you whisper inaudibly amongst yourselves. I can just about make out a few words – “…lady…much …methinks.” No, don’t log off just yet, put down the phone. Please…
I attended high school in the dark days of the 1980s, when black was black and white was white and anything in-between was classified as the former rather than the latter. Ours was one of the few schools to admit pupils from all race groups. (We were not learners back then, just pupils.)
During my matric year one of the new standard six pupils approached me excitedly in the corridor. He told me that his name was Tom* Black and that we were related. I stared blankly at him until the penny finally dropped and I exclaimed loudly: “Oh yes, my granny was Black”.
A pregnant pause (him). Some nervous laughter (me). Accusatory stares (all the people within 20 metres of us, several of whom were considered to be black or coloured by the then government).
After silently begging the earth to swallow me up, to no avail, I added in a small voice: “I mean my granny’s maiden name was Black.”
Had this exchange taken place in writing, perhaps I would not have had to blush and slink away apologetically, keeping a low profile for several days. Would it have been perfectly obvious to him (and only him, as no one else would have been able to eavesdrop on our interchange) that I was referring to a surname (Black) rather than a racial group (black)? Then again, had it been in writing, I may have thought twice about using those exact words.
In the same year, I witnessed another example of how the inability to express capital letters in the spoken word can lead to misunderstanding. In this case it was, however, very much intended.
One of our matric English setwork books was Shakespeare’s Richard lll. Apart from providing us with some of the juiciest quotes in the English language (“and seem a saint when most I play the devil”, and the deliciously understated “I am not in the giving vein to-day”), its very title gave our English teacher a constant source of witticisms.
A very dramatic, somewhat opinionated, always brilliant man, he loved to make outrageous statements that caused our mouths to hang open. He was also rather fond of sexual innuendos, which our class appreciated in the way only teenagers can.
One day he stormed into class, banged his copy of Richard lll on the table and ordered, in an apparently casual but clearly well-rehearsed manner: “Matrics, whip out your Dicks!”
I am sure you don’t need me to spell out for you what our teenage ears heard, what he wanted us to hear, and what he actually meant. Nor do I have to point out that had he written that on the chalk board (no smart boards or even white boards for us in those days), the use of the capital D would have made it clear to us that he was referring to the nickname for Richard, rather than a slang term for a part of the male anatomy.
RD** (actually I believe it is now Dr RD) – you rock!
*I have changed his first name to protect his innocence.
**I have given his initials rather than his full name. You know who you are, we know who you are, but we don’t want your ego to get too big for you to carry.
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