Jamaica Observer published my comments as a full-page column today, so I reproduce it below.
In a manner of speaking…
I read Franklin Johnson’s recent column, ‘The politics of English literacy‘ very carefully. Let me be brief. He is not advocating that Jamaicans speak English. He wants us to speak a certain variant of English, i.e. ‘speak English with a top British accent (not cockney, jordie (sic) or scouse); they learn by rote from BBC radio’. There’s the rub. English is spoken in many different forms. Most Jamaicans speak it with a distinct accent, but we also speak it in another form that would be hard for other English speakers to understand straight away. But, that’s not unusual in English.
Let me cite my experience, I lived in England for 30 years and the United States of America for 20 and both places have English as their main language — as we do. But, when I travelled, I had great difficulty understanding, depending on where I was. In Britain, it took years to understand the way Geordies spoke (in England’s north-east), and they had many words and phrases that were their own. Likewise, Scousers, who lived over the border from Wales where I lived for a while. The Welsh and Scottish, too, as nations that have English as a base (though Welsh is also official in Wales), with their accents, made them almost impossible to understand, at first. Many will know the jokes about trying to understand a Scotsman. In the USA, I lived in the north-east and managed well there, but was totally at sea in the south, and Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama all had me floored.
So, for Jamaicans, our accent and form are just one of the many that have developed as English has spread. It’s ours, and we should own it. The ‘BBC English’ accent and phrasing — which is really the English of south-east England and The Queen, loosely — have given way on air to many regional variations, and no one need feel ashamed that they speak on the BBC with an accent or phrasing they grew up with.
What then of patois? Truth is, in many societies the language people learn at home or on the streets may be far from some ‘standard’ version that is written and understood as the language. We have gone a bit further because our way of speaking has taken on some clear forms that have passed through generations and it is largely understood across the whole island, though we too have our variations within Jamaica. ‘Country’ people speak patois differently from Kingstonians. Uptowners speak patois differently from so-called ghetto youths. If that’s what students come with when going to school it’s one of the challenges to get them to learn, absorb and use any standard form.
I migrated to England as a boy and went to school in Westminster, England, right by Buckingham Palace. I spoke patois at home with my parents and relatives. I first learnt to speak like the English children around me at school, and my cockney was as good as it got — I wuz one o’ de boyz. I went to a posh grammar school and learnt to speak English like The Queen — I became a proper gentleman. I switched often between the forms of spoken English I could master. I went to work in the USA and found that many Americans could not understand the flatter tones of my English, compared to their nasal lilt, and had problems with my choice of words and phrases. I won’t go into details that I used different words and spelt words differently. The pavement was where cars drove, not where people walked. That seems simple. Suffice it to say that I was most embarrassed when I asked for a rubber in a drug store and was given a condom. Enough said.
If you listen to Britons speak, they do not all sound like The Queen. Professional footballers are a good example of what often happens. Some of the modern ones have modified their speech, or try to do so, as they earn more and move up the social ladder — most of them coming from clear working-class backgrounds. They can live in ‘posh areas and send their children to private schools and want to integrate more easily in those worlds. Liverpool’s Steven Gerrard is a definite Scouser and that won’t change; but his accent has softened and his words have changed after years of TV interviews and much foreign travel — and maybe some voice coaching, and a good dose of social mobility. But, listen to some of the older British commentators, or a lot of players, and you hear the classic mash-up of their origins. “We wuz winnin’ ri’t. Me an’ Johnno ‘ad ’em easy like.” That’s not really so far from the mash-up that a patois speaker does to standard English.
We’re smaller than England, so our mash-up of the English language does not go as far and wide as what happens in England, with its bigger land area and much bigger population. Spoken language is living and changes with the ages. The best example of that is the way that a lot of London’s youth speak, having borrowed from their neighbours of Caribbean origin over the past half-century and more. Or the way that the child of Somali refugees living in Glasgow speaks just like the average Scot. Do we need to look at the video of Toronto’s mayor in a burger joint to understand what our way of speaking offers?
We have to understand that there will be those Jamaicans who can make the change from the way most people speak to some sort of standardised form — the lady on RJR, perhaps. They have benefited from education, travel, exposure to other forms, but maybe too were forced to change. I know that many — if not most — revert to their variant of patois once out of the public eye or the office, wherever demanded the ‘better’ speech. Sometimes, they can’t catch themselves. Remember PM Bruce Golding, notably speaking to a group of journalists in Montego Bay in 2008, telling the IOC President Jacques Rogge and critics of Usain Bolt and his deeds? He said: “Dem must tek weh demself.” Note his perfect use of his vernacular.
Not every Jamaican will need to stand on stage or be in a setting that requires them to modify how they speak so that more people may be able to understand. Like in England or the USA, not all will master the change. Those who can switch, will switch. I know it happens at the highest levels. In our banks, say, the English spoken at the counter is as Mr Johnston would like it much of the time, but listen when the people are sitting in the cafeteria having their lunch.
Somehow, the keepers of the mother tongue in England have managed to live with the fact that few speak The Queen’s English. Why are we going to be so extra and say we have to be different?
Mr Johnston may despise those who speak Geordie. I had a great friend at university who came from Newcastle, and he gave me a book on how to speak Geordie. It didn’t help me much when I had to sit with him and his family, but it made me think about our Patois. We have gone further with changing the language than those from England’s north-east, but the process is similar. Now, we have the Internet to help us to try to translate from Geordie to English. But, as one of those translators cite, if a Geordie said “Gan canny or we’ll dunsh summick,” will you understand that he means “Be careful or we will crash into something”?
Somehow, England still manages to stay afloat and life moves on.
I remember the German who told my Mancunian-born wife at the time that her city was pronounced ‘Men-chester’, not ‘Man-chester’. When I worked for the IMF, I had to suffer the ignominy of many non-native English speakers “correcting” my written English. Many times we could not agree; sometimes their understanding was superior to mine, and I always use a possessive before a gerund. But, I learned from the experience. The Seychelles has French, English and Creole as official languages and writes to the IMF in all three. Now, that’s awfully grown- up, don’t you think?
Jamaican-born Dennis Jones is a retired senior economist from the IMF. His last posting was resident representative in Guinea and Sierra Leone (2003-2007). He now resides in Jamaica. Send comments to: email@example.com https://jamaicapoliticaleconomy.wordpress.com