I’d be richer for every time I’ve heard someone say that to me; add more cash for those who said “We must give you a voice test, you’d be great on the [radio, TV].” Yet, I have never had a voice test. When I listen to my voice while doing something like a Facebook live commentary, I know it sounds defiantly British, not typically Jamaican.

I’ve written before how people get really confused about what accents and speech tell them about a person, and I’ve enjoyed yanking the odd chain. I also know that some people have no clue about accents. I remember an early encounter in Virginia, USA, when someone asked me if I was Australian. I knew all I needed about the lack of worldliness in the USA from that question. I admit, I really went to town and replied. “No, I’m French.” and inhaled deeply when I got back “I knew it was foreign.”

I tell the story about going to England and having to adjust to English life. One major adjustment, but subtle, was how I spoke. I was getting bombarded with (white) English kids saying things like “Miss, we carn unnastan wha ‘e’s seyin!” I cannot replicate by six-year old Jamaican voice (reminder about building that time machine during the COVID19 isolation), but I can imagine it. So, I slowly become English. I don’t recall my parents saying things like “Why yu a taak lik day, bway?” I noticed that their speech was changing, more vocabulary than accents, though, and no surprise as they were mixing deeply with lots of English natives.

One of my endearing memories of my father was his not understanding the English word ‘sod’, which has several meanings, depending on tone and context, from ‘person’ through ‘irritant’. So, I listened to my Dad jabbering to his work colleagues about ‘those suds’; he’d obviously gone to the nearest word he could relate to (cognate), which was to do with washing. I had to take him aside (and without explaining how I knew all the meanings) and set him straight. But, I could imagine how he could have been ridiculed as another ‘ignorant darkie’. But, malapropisms are sometimes good for keeping you out of trouble and I did not correct his regular use of ‘you fekker’ 🙂

Jamaicans are not great with accents or languages, as I discover to my amusement almost daily. Many tend to judge people socially by the way they speak, especially if they detect some swaying towards overseas, or a ‘twang’ as we say. So, if you have a north American lilt it’s often assumed to be fake and a means of separating yourself from ordinary Jamaicans, and so negative. The fact that you could have been forced to code-switch or just automatically adjust how you speak through exposure (living, studying, relationships etc) is irrelevant. I don’t have that problem! I’m just a Jam-Brit or Brit-Jam: my accent is also ‘plummy’ ie a little more sophisticated-sounding than ordinary English accents and that’s my grammar school’s fault, plus rubbing shoulders with those Oxbridge and City types when I was working in London.

A tradition in many older English schools was to distinguish between siblings by calling the older ‘major’ and the younger ‘minor’, and these terms only sound right when said a certain way. Much like the tendency to use surnames (‘Jones’) as the normal form of address instead of given names (eg Dennis). Most formal settings run along the lines of addressing people with titles, eg Mister, Madam, to show some respect for position and seniority, and that subtly also affects how you speak (a little moderation in tone and clarity come about) to avoid reactions like “What did you say, boy?” from an angry adult.

While I am no male equivalent of Eliza Doolittle, I know how accents can be social separators, so it’s significant that the BBC has moved away from broadcasters having to use Received Pronunciation (aka ‘Queen’s English’, and regional accents are now hailed as ‘awreet‘. Jamaicans still get hung up on how people speak, with the added prejudice against speaking ‘Jamaican’ or Patois in what are deemed ‘proper’ settings (eg on TV, in Parliament, etc), even though it’s how about 90 percent of the population routinely speaks amongst themselves.

Anyway, I’ve long gone past the way I speak being a burden, and code-switch with abandon in English, and mix it up with some French or Spanish thrown in. You should listen to my teenager and me talking sometimes, when conversations begin with her say “Hola, hola, padre! Wha gwaan dis mawnin? Le petit dej. est pret?” (That’s Spanish, through Patois, to French, seamlessly.)

I’ve moved past the need to correct people over how they speak (my daughter is now corrupted by American pronunciations and I need to sit her down and give her what’s what over that) or grammar (which is so much about how you were taught and absorbed). So, I’m not bothering with telling people to use possessives before gerunds:

I will, however, correct any Jamaican caddy who tells me I need to hit a professional, when he means a provisional (insurance shot).