There are few reactions that can match that of someone hearing another speak for the first time and being totally blown away, confused, discombobulated by what they hear. Many people in Britain have this experience more often now when, say, a person dressed in a turban and looking like an archetypical person from the Indian subcontinent says “Aye, ye wee laddie” in a broad Scottish accent. Of course, he could have given the game away a bit, like chef Tony Singh, by wearing a kilt and sporran before letting loose on the way unsuspecting people:
That’s one of the results of multiculturalism. It has its lovers and its haters.
For those of us who have either lived away from out native countries for a considerable time (and there’s no strict measure for ‘considerable’–it’s circumstantial), the fact that how we speak changes is a given. We embrace it, mostly, even though it may be subtle or even unnoticed in the new location, but is apparent ‘back home’. It’s gotten a name in some circles–code switching. So, in my simple case, I can flirt back and forth between standard (plummy) English and a version of Jamaican Patois from sentence to sentence, phrase to phrase, or word to word, depending on how my mood and situation dictated.
It’s not really different to being truly multilingual and switching between different languages. Our household has been dealing with that for the better part of 20 years: English, French, Patois (each with different accents) now get their space in any and every exchange, depending on who’s involved and what they want to say. Some of us have smatterings of other languages, so Spanish or Russian can easily come into play, even just a word. Spasiba (Russian for thanks). Our housekeeper is from Guinea (Francophone west Africa) and she has her own local language, Toma (spoken by only ~3% of her compatriots). When she’s on the phone (and where would we be without technology like WhatsApp?), it’s a cacophony of tongues, of which French is sometimes a part. Her English is good and Patois getting there, even with its quirks (“I’m going to Half Tree”🙄🇯🇲)
But, we are not the problem. You are!
People try to take so much away about other people from how they speak: class, education, national origin, etc. so are non-plussed when their presumptions are turned on their heads and you get the dribble of “So, where are you really from?” In my whimsical moods (and they’re less now I’m retired, if you can believe it), I love jerking people’s chains. So, the JCF officer who stopped me for some frivolous reason and then had to deal with my faux Indian accent, decided it was better to forget the whole thing as I went totally in-character (shaking head and waving hands): “Ah wha dis eedyiat man a gwaan wid?” and left the scene of the non-crime to harass someone else. But, I’m especially proud of my ‘Nigerian’ (though I do a better mother than father). My pidgin is a form of modified Patois (and Jamaicans will easily see how that works, as our Patois is somewhat similar, with different tonality and vocabulary).:
But, I cannot touch Gina Yeshere and her Nigerian mother:
Now, this ability can work wonders and I’m sure that I have had much better service because I speak really nice English, so my wife often suggests I talk to people about a problem because ‘they will respect you’. Hmm. I do know that politeness works and I guess if it comes with a smoother way of speaking it’s politer. We agree that when she curses 🤬 in Patois it doesn’t have much punch. “What the bumble clock!” 🙄🤔
The downside many of us face is that our native cousins often think we are faking something and speaking a certain way to sound ‘important’, ‘educated’, ‘foreign’ or some other attribute that they think will diminish us as true nationals. Jamaicans get offended by what they think is a ‘twang’ (usually sounding like someone from north America). The problem is that some do fake it, while others have just morphed, usually out of necessity. I’ve a cousin who studied in Canada and his accent is something that gets him into trouble when speaking in public and people hear what Jamaicans call his ‘accident’. But, I recall arriving in England aged 6, thinking I spoke English and being faced with “Wha’s he saying, we carn unnastan him?” So, I had to adapt. My adaptation continued when I left my working-class neighbourhood for school in central London, where I met many more accents and school accepted speech was ‘proper’: we were just half a mile from Buckingham Palace, and 3/4 of a mile from the Houses of Parliament.
Though my parents never stopped sounding Jamaican to me, as soon as they got back to live in Jamaica 25 years later, they were ‘Britishers’.
Don’t confuse all of this with the medical condition dysprosody, pseudo-foreign accent syndrome, which usually comes from some neurological problem and means people can’t control how they speak and what they say, like the British woman (a Geordie-speaker from the north-east) who had a stroke and began speaking with a Jamaican accent. (The audio I have heard of these cases is not convincing to me, but let that go.)
We’re also not talking about Chet Hanks and his ‘Yardee’ accent:
That’s partly because he comes from acting royalty and is a rapper, so the ‘for effect’ claims may stick more. But, he points out a phenomenon that’s present and now not so new whereby people develop accents by association. So, in London, for example, there’s now what’s called ‘multicultural London English‘, a way of speaking that is a blend of Cockney, Jamaican Patois, and some other forms of speech, and is often discernible by the tone of the speech and use of certain terms. Innit. You know, what I mean, bruv. So, you’ll have people of many different ethnic backgrounds speaking in a broadly similar way amongst themselves, and then switch depending on which other groups they may be in (Cockney on the football terraces; accepted pronunciations with, say, the parents and grandparents, etc), which may mean a form of English or a another tongue(s). It’s a new lingua franca, much like many foreign children who come to Jamaica speak Patois with their peers and whatever at home. With it comes not just new vocabulary within the group, but different ways of expressing oneself, and that (as with any language) is because your brain starts to process the world differently, and problems and unexpected culture clashes can arise within families and across groups. (In Jamaica, we already know that many locals have a negative perception to people who ‘speak proper’ and will gladly throw their disparaging pejoratives at them-“Gwaan wid yu batty man talk!”) In a typically perverse Jamaican way this sits oddly with the fact that Patois (how most people speak) is itself looked down upon. Go figure!
So, language rather than being inclusive becomes divisive.
Then, the thing can come full circle when black people from different countries and cultures meet, as comedian Chris James notes, and expectations and assumptions come crashing down:
Which is kind of where I began. Zeen!