What’re you saying? Jamaicans and their mysterious English-June 8, 2021

A good and well-educated Jamaican friend shared his state of distress that many of our compatriots don’t know the difference between “fewer” and “less”. The basic difference is described by Merriam-Webster: There’s a commonly repeated rule about fewer and less. It goes like this: fewer is used to refer to number among things that are counted, as in “fewer choices” and “fewer problems”; less is used to refer to quantity or amount among things that are measured, as in “less time” and “less effort.”

I suggested that he save his angst for those who actually were taught this rule and others in English grammar; many were not. It’s like know that you’re supposed to use the possessive with a gerund. 🙂 [A gerund is the –ing form of a verb that functions the same as a noun. For example, “Running is fun.” In this sentence, “running” is the gerund. It acts just like a noun.] (Sorry, if you weren’t taught that early in English lessons (if you had them). The rule is that we often put a noun or pronoun in front of a gerund to show who or what is doing the action in the gerund. In formal writing, the subject of the gerund should be in the possessive form: Your leaving early was a wise decision. We celebrated Gord’s winning the contest. I use it in both speech and writing.)

Jamaicans do a number on many aspects of what is called standard English. I don’t bother getting anxious about it, simply because most Jamaicans don’t know or speak standard English as their first language, despite all the official guff about being an ‘English-speaking country’. If ever a lie had taken on a life that of its own, then this must be up there.

Now, there was a time when education was such that some Jamaicans could proudly boast that they had mastered English, fluently, even though they spoke Patois first and probably as fluently. It’s one reason why migrating to England was less of a struggle, at first; most could at least understand what English people were saying, even if they could not match accents and tone.

My parents could write excellent English, having gone through high school and passed many exams. When they went to England, they had little problems with written English, but took a while to master how Londoners spoke. I became their conduit, absorbing the local lingo faster, as a child mixing at school. So, their mastery of English was never a brake on their progress.

Back in my childhood in Jamaica, even people who had little formal schooling were focused on ‘speaking properly’ in certain situations, ie like English people. The downside of that was to sneer at the use of Patois in formal public settings. That attitude still pervades a lot of Jamaican thinking, as some bridle when they hear its use in presentations. I’m not going onto a defence of Patois in any setting a person feels more comfortable using it.

I speak a few languages and can better accept that what works in the moment is what works best. Case in point. A French lady called me yesterday and as soon as I saw her caller-ID I answered in French, even though she soon reverted to English. That’s how it should be. I flip between languages easily, and my youngest daughter and I often have conversations that are a fluid mixture of languages, even swapping mid-sentence.

Modern-day Jamaica can’t boast many people with many basic English skills. It’s often painful to go to a formal event and hear a high-ranking official trying to speak proper English and falling over (h)every word as ‘e ‘andles his prepared remarks. It’s grating.

Jamaicans have a bit of a love affair with the pomp(ous) aspect of their association with Britain. So can’t understand this fawning to former colonial masters, but life’s like that in lots of former colonies. The French spoken in west Africa is often impeccable. The ‘servants’ had to show the ‘masters’ that they could master their ways of communicating, amongst other things.

Such skills were the key to success, once upon a time, along with lighter shades of skin. But, as things change, and people’s approach to language rules slips, some still don’t want to let go of what they took time to learn and be proud of. I don’t have a problem with that. Much as I don’t have a problem with knowing how the apostrophe works, and many having a clue of it’s its or its’. English is difficult, so ease up and move on, if you can. 🙂

Now, if my friend had wanted to mount a crusade against the use of ‘persons’ instead of ‘people’, I’d have been at the front of the recruits. 🙂

Admittedly, this one is a bit harder. Again, citing Merriam-Webster: People should always be used when a collective noun referring to the entirety of a group or nation (i.e., “the French People”) is called for. For references to groups of a specific or general number, either people or persons may be used, but modern style guides tend to prefer people where earlier guides preferred persons, especially for countable groups.

So, using ‘persons’ is archaic/old-fashioned, and therein lies some of the issues with English in Jamaica, and the Caribbean; it’s stuck in time…in part, because, it’s not the living language of most people, and that what tends to happen with second languages. 🙂

Author: Dennis G Jones (aka 'The Grasshopper')

Retired International Monetary Fund economist. My blog is for organizing my ideas and thoughts about a range of topics. I was born in Jamaica, but spent 30 years being educated, living, and working in the UK. I lived in the USA for two decades, and worked and travelled abroad, extensively, throughout my careers and for pleasure. My views have a wide international perspective. Father of 3 girls. Also, married to an economist. :)