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. 🙂

How wi fi chat?

I am not going to make any deep analysis, just a few assertions. Most Jamaicans are most comfortable speaking in Patois. It is well understood by most people living in Jamaica, or of Jamaican heritage living abroad. Patois should not be regarded as a second-class citizen to standard English.

Professor Carolyn Cooper is one of the great proponents of Jamaican Patois. I am not going to cite any of her works, because I have not read them, apart from her Gleaner articles. I am a great lover of the works of Louise Bennett, and I have read her works.

If we believe that formal situations (some, at least) demand that we speak English in a way that we think will make it easier for other English-speakers to understand, then we had better become proficient with standard English, in both written and spoken forms.

However, we should not deny the fact that most Jamaicans do not learn standard English at home and cannot have it reinforced by their surroundings. In that sense, it can seem ‘foreign’.

Trying to teach children standard English at school is right, but we need to find a way of not penalizing those who do not succeed in mastering it. By all means, reward those who do master it.

I left Jamaica as a young boy–six years old. I learned standard English at home and at school, and seemed to master it. Everyone around me in Jamaica spoke Patois and I mastered that too. I went to England and had to learn that my ‘funny speech’ was not too different from ‘Cockney’, and I managed to master the latter, too. I can speak well and write well in standard English. I can slide into one or other non-standard forms of English. I enjoy the linguistic gymnastics.

When I meet people in Jamaica, few of them address me in standard English, except in banks, some private firms (like Lime stores) and some government agencies. Everyone else, speaks to me in Patois. I am happy with that.

Some people who speak standard English, speak it very badly in terms of their own understanding of the language. Some cannot form full sentences in standard English; it’s clear, but incomplete. I never have trouble understanding what Jamaicans say to me in Patois.

I think Jamaica needs to take a serious look at other countries where Patois or Creole are spoken and written widely by the natives in those countries and see what lessons can be learned from elevating, not supressing such expression.

Pardon my cliché: the island in the sun gets its piece of the pie

When I heard the ‘spokesperson’ for some organization utter that he wanted Jamaica to move toward the first world, I shuddered. I remembered quickly a comment made to me a few days ago about how people here are lapsing increasingly into the language of clichés. Jamaica is not immune from the toxins that float through the world. In our sometimes misguided rush to seem like we have the chutzpah to at least talk our way up there with the best, I wish that we’d take just a deep breath before we go utterly headlong where we shouldn’t tread.cliche-text-bubbles

I have to read and listen more carefully in coming weeks, because I think I am missing gems flying around out there in terms of clichés clucked out of thin air. But, here are a few from the past week alone, just from casual listening.

Back to the negotiating table“–(uttered in the context of a recent strike by oil tanker drivers)…except, in Jamaica, it may mean going TO have negotiations, after blustering and huffing in irate comments that have not real been discussions.

Incentivize“– (during Parliamentary Committee on Banking). I did not hear the name of the person speaking, but it was a private sector representative of a bank. I’d be very happy to get much lower fees for all the electronic transactions that the banks are making it easier for me to do.

It’s a game of two halves“–too many football coaches in Jamaica. The essence of the game is TWO halves (what are two QUARTERS?). Yes, I understand that it’s meant to highlight a contrast in how the match went, but it makes my teeth grate.

Teams are going to win; teams are going to lose“–Coach of Wolmers basketball team. This so knocked me over, I couldn’t get up for an hour.

It’s just a matter of going out and executing…”–Jamaica’s cricket team captain. Who will be in the cross hairs? Lest, he speak before the firing squad approaches…

Stakeholders“–Too many people wanting to sound like bureaucrats. When I heard the president of schools association use it last night in a discussion about sex videos by teenagers, I wondered if he really thought this made his comments more substantial. The use of the term has gotten out of hand. I dread the day when my 10 year-old comes and refers to me and her mother as ‘stakeholders’ in her life.

Democratization of information“–Dr. Karen Carpenter (clinical sexologist…not to be confused with psychologist), on Impact, discussion sex activity by teenagers. An academic has written that ‘There is more power than peril in democratization of information’. Maybe, but it’s a perilous phrase, and one whose misuse may well be just around the corner, once word gets out about these words.