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Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.

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Monday, February 11, 2008

Is English you using?

I am plagued constantly by accusations of being British just because of how I speak. I laugh this off or offer a wry smile, even in the most absurd of situations. Over the weekend, while enjoying my Saturday puddin' and souse, two Jamaican women friends--though I have to say that one I have known for just one month while the other was introduced to me by the first just this same Saturday--commented "But, him is English." As the conversation went on, these two friends discovered that they had both been born (of Jamaican parents) in London, England, and left there when they were 9 months old. And yes, "We is Jumaycan." I, on the other hand, was born in Kingston, Jamaica, also of Jamaican parents; lived there till I was six then found myself exported to the "Mother country". And yes, "I am a Jamaican." When I joked about their claims to being full members of the Yard, they saw my point. True, I speak with an accent that is a pretty good version of the Queen's English and sounds like I grew up in Westminster in the shadow of Buckingham Palace. Well, duh. That's where I went to school. But get me angry and you wan' hear me tongue. I have little trouble understanding Jamaican patois even though my normal way of speaking is more like Alistair Cooke, or better still like Trevor MacDonald; my wife thinks that I would have had a great career as a broadcaster like him. 

Now, we who are living in Barbados and hail from either England, Jamaica or even The Bahamas, have to deal with more than figuring out nationality issues. We have a hard time with the use of the English language. There is a nice little piece on Caribbean English on Wikipedia, which succinctly shows some interesting regional divergences: 

Standard English - Where is that boy?
Barbados - 'Wherr iz dat boi?' (Spoken very quickly, is choppy, rhotic [meaning uses "r" where it should be, and nothing to do with curry and dhal], and contains glottal stops; the most distinct accent)
Jamaica, and Antigua and Barbuda- 'Whierr iz daaht bwoy?' (Distinctive, sporadic rhoticity; Irish and Scottish influence)
Trinidad and Bahamas - 'Wey dat baoy?' (Very similar to the accents of south western England and Wales; have no rhoticity)
Guyana, Tobago, St. Vincent - 'Weyr iz daht bai?'. (Many variations depending of Afro- or Indo- descent, and compentency in standard English; sporadic rhoticity )
Belize, Panama, Nicaragua, The Bay Islands, Limón, and the Virgin Islands - 'Wehr iz daat bouy?' (Distinct, sporadic rhoticity, pronunciation becomes quite different from "Creole" pronunciation.)

Fortunately, English has no equivalent of the Academie Francaise to control use of the language and we can speak and write how we want to. Better still, we have some national heroes and heroines who have made it their task to establish a proper place for our "labrish" (see Louise Bennett's official site). Many Jamaicans (and others in the Caribbean) have the benefit of mastering both standard English and patois and would have no trouble with the following good English tongue twister:

When a doctor gets sick and another doctor doctors him, does the doctor doing the doctoring have to doctor the doctor the way the doctor being doctored wants to be doctored, or does the doctor doing the doctoring of the doctor doctor the doctor as he wants to do the doctoring?

It's funny when Jamaicans ask if I understand Bajan. Almost as funny as an American once asking me if I was French! (That's for another posting.) After a year on this little piece of coral and limestone I have become used to expressions like "You using it [here]?", and knowing that as far as my Bajan puddin' and souse is concerned it's not an offer to smear it on my body, but to confirm that I am eating it in the bar not taking it home.

Jamaicans tend to use accusative forms like "him" whenever. "Is him did not it." the people on the corner would yell at the thief. In Barbados, the tendency is to use the nominative wherever. "I go tell she, that I sleep wi' he." I overheard one lady saying as she walked on the beach this morning. There are other dissimilarities between the two islands that would make it hard to slide in unnoticed. My Jamaican lady friend told me how her Bajan landlord had told her that "He was cruel, bad." at the weekend, after he found out that someone had stolen his BlackBerry. Apparently, he meant that he was hopping mad.

In The Bahamas (yes the "the" is capitalised", like "The Gambia"), you have another linguistic curiosity because very few people can say the letter "v" [a lot of people from the Indian subcontinent have a similar problem]. So, they cheer for the "Walley Boys" at Junkanoo and are glad that this year the Golden Girls sprinted to "wictory". You have "Women who are walking "wictims" of domestic "wiolence". I have no idea how these islanders became so linguistically challenged but I now stop shuddering when I hear someone say that they are going to put "Wicks up the nose"!

In Jamaica we are famed for dropping or adding "h": "Hi did heat my hegg fi brekfas'". So did I "eat my egg" or "heat my egg"? Only I know. 

We are also good at using that simple word "fresh" with all of its meanings. "Bway! Him fresh, ien." (he's slightly improper, or disrespectful). "Hmm. Him smell fresh." (clean). "Mi hegg fresh." (no salt). "Mi a heat fresh hegg." (just laid). "Him a wear fresh pants." (new). All is usually clear in context. Usually, not always.

You should read sometime Bill Bryson's "The Mother Tongue" to get a fuller flavour of English and how it varies, not just in our little piece of the garden.

Me? I am going to freshen  myself up and listen to BBC radio, then find a good fresh egg to have for breakfast.

2 comments:

Brian said...

Nice one, Dennis, very nice.

BarbadosInFocus / PictureInFocus said...

I have only now got around to reading this post. It is very witty and a good read. But I will put another twist on it as well. Nowadays, you can find many Barbadians (Bajans) trying to talk like Jamaicans. I personally find it too funny.

But maybe I am too hasty. In college during the early eighties I had a Jamaican room mate. Moreover, the Caribbean club we started in 1982 at SUNY New Paltz had more than half of its members who hailed from Jamaica.

Now to the story, I would find my self talking like a Jamaican to my room mate and others as appose to repeating my Bajan dialect to get my point across. It just seemed easier. However, reading Bajan dialect can sometimes be challenging.