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Whose language is it anyway?
Having inherited neither wealth nor property, like the bulk of humanity I labour in the plantation to feed the faces of my family. Work is fine, even if the remuneration is foul, directly engaging me with a lifelong passion and fascination with words—spoken, sung or written.
I’ve been eavesdropping, or macoing, conversations in, around and over my head for years. It was the lure of Trinidad English Creole which brought me here on a hot, green night, in the days when I could still run the 100 yards in less than 12 seconds.
Now that I’ve eased down to a slow chip I’m still listening, and although all the bookshelves in my modest library are stuffed to their gills and I’ve forsworn buying any more, I’m always picking up bargains in bookstores, plundering Nalis, or happy like pappy when the request for a review comes my way. So you get the picture—language is my business, my bread and butter, my R&R.
As a neg jadin most of my fieldwork brings me face to face with tertiary students, struggling with that most slippery of beasts—Standard English. Despite 50 years of independence I’m still hearing the same apologies from my students, which I encountered in 1987, when I faced my first class at what was then El Dorado Senior Comprehensive. Initially I was puzzled to hear about “bad” and “broken” English.
On many occasions as a child and even in adulthood, I’d been castigated for my “bad” English, not when writing but most times I opened my mouth.
Having spent my formative years in a decidedly working-class section of London’s western Fulham district, I acquired what many erroneously refer to as Cockney, a local subdialect with its own pronunciation and grammar, which bore little resemblance to the sonorities of the Queen’s, Standard, BBC, Oxford, or any other register of educated English.
While education and a photographic memory (those were the days) ensured I was competent in written Standard English by the time I entered a Jewish grammar school aged 11, only a couple of years later, as a puny 13-year-old, I was getting some serious licks from my seniors at the select Scottish public (read exclusive and very private) school where my class-conscious stepmother had deposited me via a competitive exam, in the vain hope of getting me to “speak like a gentleman.”
My schoolmates, mostly the duncy sons of the English and Scottish aristocracy (including the Green Bonnie Prince Charlie), spoke a different language, as incomprehensible to me as the strangled dialect of Aberdeen. From the contempt registered in the blows I received for talking “Cockney” I deduced my difference but not my inferiority and I was damned if I was going to change the way I spoke for a bunch of moronic bullies.
Sure, by the time I’d graduated from Oxford, with my inherited ability to mimic, I could converse undetected with a man from the BBC or even the Queen sheself, but one part of my identity could only find true expression in the language I’d learnt on the streets.
So in one sense “You can take the man out of London but you can’t take London out of the man,” and although I used to spend many hours of research in rumshops hanging on the every utterance of the moppers and poppers (obviously no longer a safe recreation) I still don’t talk like a Trini, except when it comes to vocabulary.
So as a practitioner of “bad English” myself, I’m always a little embarrassed when my students dismiss a major part of their own identity.
Language is as volatile an issue as any Congo or Calcutta boat and just as pertinent to national and individual identity. But like many of the issues of our quixotically pre-postmodern freefall society, it is largely clouded in a postcolonial confusion concocted by those intent on maintaining colonial conditions. Massa Day apparently can’t over and de same ole khaki shorts are still very much in evidence.
Only the deaf and blind can reduce the linguistic complexity that is T&T to the level of simplicity inherent in the dismissive “bad English”.
From an Amerindian base, language in the two islands has had to accommodate Spanish, French Creole, English Creole, Bhojpuri and Hindi, along with the much later Standard English, Creoles from other islands and American English. Spanish and French grammatical forms are still used on a daily basis: “It making hot”—a direct translation of the French “Il fait chaud.”
It took Standard English at least 1,000 years to evolve from the confluence of Anglo-Saxon, Norman French, Latin and every other language encountered during the imperial period.
Attitudes to Standard English have changed radically in the last 30 years, to the extent that if you follow the BBC World Service you’ll realise that local dialects and their pronunciation are now the norm. Attitudes and the language itself have shifted dramatically since the Second World War, but apparently little of that change has registered locally. To be continued...
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