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. 🙂
My friend, Mary Jones (no relative) writes really interesting posts, from the rare perspective of a newish bell ringer. This piece resonated immediately. I did not see the image and I do not know any e e cummings poems, but I do know words and letters—cryptic crosswords, anagrams, puns, grammatical slip, I love them all—and saw, immediately, that I was being summoned. You see, this resonates because ‘grasshopper’ is one of my writing pseudonyms, and I saw the word about 3 letters in. Why I chose that soubriquet, you’ll have to trawl through my blog posts 🙂
I discovered e e cummings, the experimental American poet, when I was about 14 or 15, and I could not believe what I was reading. Or rather, not “reading” because some of his poems you do not exactly “read”, you sort of absorb them through what you know about reading. If you try to “read” […]
Something pithy today. I love playing Words with Friends-marvellous for keeping the brain ticking over. Last night, my tiles allowed me to play ‘oompahed’. Now, I’ll accept that most will have no idea what that means: it’s ‘a repeated rhythmic bass accompaniment especially in a band’. So, the sound is oompah-oompah… Oompah music lives on in many places, but famously in Germany, especially around the time of Octoberfest:
There. But, I went somewhere else, immediately, about 60 years back.
In England, there’s the phrase, ‘Oompah, oompah, stick it up your jumper!’ It means ‘I don’t care at all’, and is a more polite way of saying ‘stick it up your a**e!’. So, as a boy, it was one of those phrases kids would love to say.
Anyway, its origins are in pre-World War Two Britain, thanks to a comedy duo, The Two Leslies:
It became a catchphrase of the comedian Jimmy Edwards. In the 1950s, it was considered quite rude because it included the words ‘stick it up’. So, lucky me, growing up in England in the 1960s 🙂 Apparently, it has died out since then.
If there’s one thing I love about travel, it’s the ability to be myself but become something else for many people. What on Earth are you talking about, man?
“Where’d you come from?” the lady asked me in the mega-department store. ‘From the airport,’ I replied. Not satisfied with that, she asked, “No! Where’d really come from?” I scratched my head, and said, ‘Well, I came from Miami.’ She pressed on: “But, you ain’t from here…America.” Right, she was. I didn’t yield. Then she came with the blast that many do: “You have a’ accent!” I giggled, and replied, ‘So do you, just different.’ She shook her head.
I know she was trying to pin me down as being more than just out of the immediate area. Americans are great when it comes to playing this game. They seem to have more problems than most figuring out accents from other places. Just a while ago, an oldish man asked me if I was from New Zealand. Now, that’s not a bad guess, given that my English is very English. But, how do I get mistaken for French?
I met a neighbour of my daughter’s yesterday, and as they talked, the lady asked me if I could guess where she came from. Her accent had a kind of east European/southern Mediterranean tinge, but sounded Latin, too. She was from Colombia/Chile. Her speaking English as at best a second language can pose many problems for a listener, because she could simply sound like her teacher or audio tape had taught her. When I spoke to her in Spanish, it was clearer that she was unlikely to be from Spain, based on what I had learned from my Colombian teacher. You get my point? It’s not easy to pin people down by how they speak.
When I tell people I come from Jamaica, I’m often met with variants of “You don’t sound Jamaican!” We know that they want us to sound rawer and less comprehensible, not maybe as hard to understand as many a dancehall or reggae artiste, but certainly not polished. I can’t tell them where on the spectrum to put me, but here’s a helpful guide:
Once in my life, I formed a men’s football team, called ‘Internatonales’; I chose that name because the players came from a wide range of countries–about 15, if I remember well. Our team working language on the field was English, but between groups of players it could be any of several mixes, including two or more at the same time, as many people were multilingual. Add to that, two players had come from Gallaudet, the DC university for the hard-of-hearing, so some of us also see sign language to better communicate with them. Refereeing our matches could be fun, especially when we needed to tell officials that some players could not hear the whistle. (It gave us some leeway, too, as we could argue that some players shouldn’t be treated too harshly because of their disabilities.) I played sweeper, not because it was my best position, but I could manage things better from the back and deal with almost everyone on the field evenly from there. Running and playing with that team taught me a lot about the importance of clear communications and also the dangers if things got misinterpreted. It also stressed the real value of learning other languages. Dare you to curse at us in what may seem an obscure language, like Serbian; chances were we’d have someone who understood. Those were fun times!
When I’m in a good mood, I often ask whether my speaking French or Russian would make me one of those nationalities. French many can handle, but Russian? You mad!
I’m due to have lunch with one of my old friends, who played on that team with me. He’s white Portuguese, born and raised in Mozambique. We worked together in the same organization for nearly 15 years. He speaks excellent Spanish, Italian and French. He speaks lovely broken English, and when he writes it’s even more broken. We’re due to meet in an Irish pub in America. Should be fun, if we break out the languages.
If you are the parent of a teenager or preteen, you have probably gone past them singing to songs that you find hard to decipher. That’s part of growing up and living in dynamic societies. Lots of things are done by the young that challenge their elders. We can be a bunch of reactionary fogeys and come out with guff like “This is terrible…”, forgetting the strain that The Beatles or Rolling Stones or Bob Marley put on older ears and senses. But, this and other dynamic developments are occurring, in part as a result of migration and other social movement. Speech is changing. That’s evident in music but also if you are on the street or listen to certain radio stations. I just want to touch on a few examples. My daughter, who’s 10, has been making videos with her friends. One she did was a cover of ‘Fancy’ by Iggy Azalea, which sounded close to the real thing.
Iggy is white, originally from Australia, but moving to the US South in her mid-teens, and immersing herself in hip-hop culture. She raps in an American accent, and uses the expressions and style of black urban areas. Why? Well, it’s cooler and more likely to be hard to understand, so lends itself to being sort of counter cultural. It could be another form of code switching, though an unusual one.
This is but one form of cross over that’s becoming common. In Jamaica, we’ve had similar experiences, where the fringe culture of Rastafarianism, including some of its speech patterns, has captured much mainstream space and attention. Look how readily people recognize Jamaica as an ‘Irie’ place. The notion of progressing and never regressing, as in ‘Forward ever, backward never’, is another instance. So, we accentuate positive verbs and adjectives. We do not under-stand anything, we over-stand. Get it? It’s broader and more complex, though, including the replacing of many common prefixes with ‘I’. Remember Bob Marley saying “I-tinually”?
I heard this weekend how in Jamaica homophobia is capturing expressions. Best example: people go to do number 1 (urinate), but because number 2 refers to the anus, which is becoming a taboo part of the body, people talk about ‘number 3’. Weird. I spent a weekend with some friends and their teens recently and heard the children repeatedly telling their parents to ‘hold a medz‘. I know now that this means ‘chill out’.
I’ve spent the past week in France, with a family I first met several years ago in Guinea, west Africa. It’s really been a great time, spent mostly lazing around, eating, watching World Cup football, exchanging thoughts, and taking some little tours. The trip was largely to get my daughter a little immersion in French life and language: she did very well, including leading the way for a day eating waffles and crèpes, finished off by a long bike ride through the old town centre.
She got the chance to see how French people spend their Sundays in the summer: lazing on the beach, sitting in the park, playing in the park and at little squares, walking and talking.
I am always looking around at how life is lived. In France, it is hard to avoid seeing how orderly life seems to be. France is laid out very carefully, and villages and towns tend to feel much the same because many elements are controlled at the national level. Each town may have its own flair but there is a certain conformity that exists. You take a trip and road signs guide you clearly to small towns or larger towns and cities. You arrive at a place and you get a sign for centre ville (town centre), and you can then find your bearings to parking, or commercial areas, or open space. I contrasted that with Jamaica, where you may get no signs at all for long distances and may miss the town centre for want of any signs.
Our ride in from the semi-rural suburb to the town centre was eye-opening in terms of how a town can be laid out to make it easy to move around on foot or by vehicle or on a bike. There are paved pathways everywhere, and we could take several and meander our way into the town centre. We took a route that brought us through a park, where people were lazing on the grass, playing pick-up football, playing boules, walking dogs and children. It was all very clean and well-kept, even in a wild, rustic way because areas were left that way for ‘bio diversity’ (a sign told me); Contrast that with Jamaica. We let people create pathways by the sheer numbers who walk a route and wear out the grass so that a dirt trail is visible and becomes the route of choice. We tend not to have open space for lazing around and simple recreation. The space around Devon House and Hope Gardens, in Kingston, are rare exceptions. People tend to just hang around on a road or on a street corner.
Jamaicans do not seem to take great pride in keeping their spaces clean. I often see people sweeping streets early in the morning, but piles of garbage, especially with discarded plastic items, are part of the Jamaica scene. Even in so-called ‘upscale’ communities, we would not be surprised to see the small piles. Sometimes, they are worse and include items such as discarded household appliances.
Social order in France is different. It is not always clearly visible. French public sector workers, for example, love to exercise their rights to withdraw labour. So, French railway workers were on strike when we arrived. We had concerns about getting from Paris to our destination further south, but our train ran on time, as did many others that day. The ticket inspectors on the trains did nothing, however, to check that passengers had paid. So, I then felt aggrieved that I had bothered to order tickets online from Jamaica and print them off at the airport. My friend had to go to Paris one day during our visit, and he had the same experience, but he and most passengers travelled for free because they could not buy tickets at the stations. The railway workers are public servants. My friend complains that there are too many fonctionaires, and they are a public burden for all of their working lives and retirement. But, they are part of France’s broad state coverage.
I’ve not seen any major strike during the past year in Jamaica. I’ve read about and heard stories of public workers taking money from the bus company and running all manner of schemes to line their pockets. I’ve seen a few, scattered protests. (Just to complete the context, I’m headed to London today and read that British airways cabin staff will strike from tomorrow, so the private sector worker flexing her/his muscle may grab me in England.) I have suffered, however, by a public sector that does not seem to be very effective or efficient. Services in Jamaica suffer from decades of neglect and underinvestment.
We reap that now with uncertain water supplies, for example. That’s life critical; train travel is not. I see the mess that is public road repairs. Dig up; patch up; wash away; dig up again; patch up again. Only a hard-headed idiot would think this is anything but rank stupidity or the effect of a permanent piece of bandoolism taking money out of the public’s collective pocket.
Go to almost any French town and you will find municipal camping; it’s now less than it was. But, you could arrive almost anywhere, up to about 9pm at night, and find a camp site. True, you needed a tent to pitch, but you could bathe, and sleep easily for a small amount. That’s not a part of our life style. Period. We stop on the roadside and sleep in the car or van, if needed. Our country is small enough that we can complete most trips easily within a day. France is huge, by contrast.
France has a massive tourism market. It is based largely on French life and history, of which there is very much to see and share. Town that have survived for over a thousand years are common. Physical structures that have long history are part of the national treasure.
Jamaica has very little history, and for many, it reflects aspects that create discomfort because it reflects our past slavery. But, attractive buildings should not be discarded, in my view: we can tell the stories for our future generations to better understand. I’m one who would work hard to see restored our many old great houses or parts of sugar plantations or our mundane-looking railway stations. We would get a better-looking country in the bargain. French people tour their own country to sample its history; foreigners do the same. It helps to have land borders to ease the movement.
France shows the results of having national visions and putting the pieces in place to achieve them. France has nuclear energy as a major pillar of its power generation. Popular or not, it’s there: France, therefore, focuses on threats to its supplies or uranium. France has grasped the importance of energy conservation and environmental protection. You see many reminders of how to save energy. You see many places to dispose of items so that they can be recycled: elegant shells placed on corners to take glass, plastic, or paper recyclable material. In the home, people dispose of their rubbish with an eye to where it will go next. We have Riverton dump. We pile garbage up in racks or bins, all items mixed together, in shiny plastic bags. Our streets are littered with those bags, and styrofoam boxes, mainly because we just do not have enough places for trash and then do not clear them regularly. I have not seen one styrofoam box on a road, or a plastic bag flying around. The French use plastic bags; I went to the supermarket, and used them. Food to take away is served also in styrofoam boxes, sometimes. But, the French are better at disposing of their rubbish and clearing the places used for that. It was not always so; progress from lessons learned and provisions made to help change habits. Suffice to say, the French do not now have the same eyesores as Jamaicans.
I shouldn’t dwell on economic policy, but I will just glide over it. France is a large, open economy, within a common currency area, the European Union. It is not a new thing and took decades to reach where it is. One aspect of that is the existence of a common currency, the Euro, which is used in the whole area. It is a freely traded currency and is relatively stable in value. France is not under an IMF programme and can borrow freely from private financial markets, if it wishes. People in France or the wider EU area do not obsess about the level of the exchange rate. Jamaica is an economy that has suffered decades of mismanagement and has an exchange rate that is now reflecting that accumulated effect–it’s sliding constantly. It’s never a good idea to try to pick a bottom for an exchange rate, so more slide is likely than less. We depend heavily on foreign assistance, in part because we became dependent on foreign goods but could not produce enough to pay for them. French people wander the world with pockets and bank accounts full of Euros, using cash freely if they travel within the EU, or checks and credit cards within the area or further abroad. Money, in that sense, is no problem. I have about JD 1000 in my wallet because I know it’s of no value outside Jamaica and despite the high denominations of our money, it is worth very little.
But, both countries are full of silly people. Jamaicans love to stand up for indefensible idiocy in the name of following rules. France, too, has that condition, but with a nice accent. I went to the supermarket the other evening to get some French food items to carry to a friend in London. I went to the self-service cashier and started to scan my items. The laser beeped and the register showed my purchases. I got my total and popped out my credit card to use. The machine only accepted cards with a little chip in them–a security feature that has been in Europe for a few years, now. No go. The machine had a slot for swiping a card, though. I tried that. No go. A supervisor came over and looked at the card. No go. We asked about swiping. “I’m not allowed to do that,” she said. We all looked puzzled. We guessed she did not know how to make that work, or had missed the training session. She shrugged her shoulders and walked way. My friends and I rustled together some cash and I paid. I could have just bundled the items into our bags and walked out, there was no checker. We scratched our heads. Jamaica’s “that’s how we do it” would not be out-of-place.
I’ve loved being in a totally different language and thinking space for a few days.
You get to think about your own cultural biases well when they are not around you, but seen from afar. By comparison to Jamaica, France is much more tolerant of different life styles; that need not be limited to sexual preferences (one of Jamaica’s current hobby horses). French people greet each other with kisses, as well as handshakes; everyone kisses on the cheek, despite gender or age. It’s the French way, and is seen in French-speaking countries over the world. French men kissing each other are not homosexuals; they’re French. French men kissing young girls are not pedophiles; they’re French. It’s not a big deal.
I discussed with my friends what their children (two in their 20s and one still a teenager) were doing. One had graduated as an engineer, but did not want to pursue that as a career; he was working at a KFC and trying to figure out what to do next; his girlfriend is a biology graduate and working in another field. Another, went to university for a year but was not liking it, so went into the fire service and is happily training in that field, focusing on first-aid and ancillary services: according to local rules, her fire station does not allow her to drive fire engines, so she’s on a path that avoids that. The youngest is studying law at university, working in a restaurant part-time. Like most young people, they enjoy their fun and going out, within limits. They are all close to their parents, the two youngest still living at home, happily. We talked about graffiti–a feature of French urban spaces. We talked not much about politics, except about the shared curse of corruption. We talked a lot about travel to Jamaica–they had planned to visit earlier this year, but things had not worked out. We talked a lot about our languages: my daughter understands French quite well, and was getting braver and speaking more. She went shopping and managed well in the store; she’s only 10, and has to deal with language difference and age differences. I helped my hosts through many minefields in English, which they may be able to remember when I’m gone but maybe not. We had fun learning the differences between English words that sound alike but have different meanings, such as bubble, bobble, babble and bauble; as well as the chestnuts, there, their, they’re. We had fun with “ice cream” and “I scream”. French has its prickly language patches, too: my daughter played with sens (smell), sans (without), cent (100), s’en (within).
We had a great time Sunday afternoon, watching some people play boules, a form of bowling, played outdoors on a gravelly dirt space. They were having a few drinks (beers, pastis, sodas with syrup) and smoking the obligatory cigarettes. They wanted to let us pass on our bikes, but we explained that we had come to watch. “It’s a major championship, you know,” one man slurred. A young lady came to ask my daughter if she was American; my French disguised my origins well enough. We joked about her staying in France to go to school. We watched the throwing of metal balls and the ribald jockeying for about 15 minutes. It was a nice slice of life: simple, inclusive, happy. Jamaicans would be playing dominoes and having their glasses of rum or a beer. My daughter covered her nose as the smoke of cigarettes hit her. Jamaica has taken a step forward that France has not yet taken, with its ban on smoking in public spaces. We can learn much from France, but we have a few lessons to offer.
I left my friends a jar of jerk seasoning; it’s been at the dining table every day as a dipping sauce; it’s very popular. I showed the fire fighter how to cook porridge: she normally ate her oats with cold milk.
Life’s not really that complicated, sometimes, if you are open to what others have to offer.
Many people love butting heads. I say that not because of Brazil 2014, where footballers head butting each other has come into vogue, even between two Cameroonian team mates.
This is basic behaviour between fighting animals. It’s often spontaneous and violent, though we’ve seen some pathetic acting during this World Cup and in many earlier football matches.
But, butting is also a good metaphor for how issues are addressed. My eyes focus on Jamaica most days and I heads and horns locked, wresting each others from side to side. Think of any recent ‘hot button’ topic: Brendan Bain-UWI/CHART, Jamaica Constabulary Force-INDECOM, 381 megawatt project-Minister Paulwell-Office of the Contractor General, repeal of buggery laws. The butting need not be mutually started, but by its nature, once butting starts it tends to be met with rebuttal.
On sexual topics, Jamaicans have a few extra problems. They like to head butt, but anything involving butts causes many Jamaicans to squirm. Probably, the last thing a Jamaican man wants associated with his name is ‘head butter’. The potential confusion is so wide that the man may well scream for help. But, what tends to happen is that the butting starts early and if the topic of the butt enters the conversation, then ifs and buts get no space, but butts are all that people focus on and they butt each other mercilessly after that. Huffing and puffing, they may well take a pause, but will be butting about butts in no time at all.
One of Jamaica’s main newspapers is currently letting its obsession with butts get in the way of serious balance in its news coverage. They are not into buttering up the audience, but they have gone overboard and leave no butt unturned–if that is a phrase to coin now. If, occasionally, they would say to themselves “but”, then their own butts would be in a better place and they would perhaps feel less need to keep focusing on others’ butts. But, they don’t.
Thoughts of heads, butts, butter, and better are not likely to make them feel comfortable, even though better use of their heads would let them see that they need not go butting into people’s business so much. Instead, they try to butt us into accepting that, but for them, the world would be in total tatters. But, they keep ramming us with their butt obsession.
The butt is not what is used in reasoned debate. If you sat on yours and butted less with your head, you’d often end up in a better place. But, your head rules your heart and you become a butter. Clonk! Though adults tend to do it, it seems so childish. It fixes little except a sudden rush of anger and is often followed by deep regret, and maybe a deep cut.
Looked at from the distance of Europe, I can see Jamaican butts everywhere. No, madam, it’s not a naturist site. Heads are locked and not much real talking is going on. “Hrmph!” “Grhh!” Seems that those are the popular utterances. Sex education material in some private schools seems to be the latest issue for butting, and again butts feature in the ‘concerns’. It’s resulted in the loss of the head of Jamaicans for Justice, who resigned. She’s out on her butt. But for her, where would Jamaica be in addressing certain ethical issues?
That’s how things go on that sunny little island, that foreigners think is so cool and laid back.
Jamaica Observer published my comments as a full-page column today, so I reproduce it below.
In a manner of speaking…
Dennis JONESWednesday, April 23, 2014
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?
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.
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.
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.