Languages and how they are used and change have become one of my loves over my life. Earlier in the week, I had the idea of writing about how I first discovered that I was bilingual. I was born in an English-speaking country and thought I spoke English well. Formally, I spoke standard English with a Jamaican lilt. Casually, I spoke patois, which was Jamaica’s own take on the English language, and has a clear structure, if you study it. When I left my Caribbean island home as a boy and landed in the mother country itself, and began to live in London, I realised that my standard English and my patois were not going to get me far; I realised that the way that I spoke English was not intelligible to most people I met. My standard English could be understood with careful listening, in the same way that a Londoner can understand someone from Yorkshire. But my patois was another language to most. When I said to one of my elementary school playmates “Yu iz jus’ a likkle bway”, he gazed at me and said in his own Cockney style “You wot?” As children do, I adapted. I learned to speak like a Cockney and in no time was no exception in my school. Sure, there were words that would slip out and betray my roots: I would say “sidewalk” (not pavement), or “yard” (not ground). Or, there were inflections that might have also betrayed me: the Jamaican tendency to drop ‘h’ (aitch), as in ‘ome, ‘oliday, ‘ot, ‘appy, etc. Or our tendency to add ‘h’, as with h’apple, h’ax, h’orange, etc. But, I got cured over the years.
As I went through the English education system and then into the workplace, my accent changed to fit in with the social groups with which I mixed. I went to a very good, though very small, state-run school in Westminster, then went to a very good university, then went to work in the City of London, rubbing shoulders with many of the well-healed and very well spoken–‘those who spoke with a plum in their mouths’ was the term. My Cockney accent became suppressed, surfacing mainly when I got very excited or angry (as on the soccer [football] field, or watching my soccer team play, or when I was on the track, or when in a tense situation in traffic :-)). I spoke with that flat, southern England accent that set me amid the upper middle classes or landed gentry. The fact that I was black made many assume that my parents were some African nobility who had paid for me to go to a good school and exclusive university. That’s how my voice has formed and now it stays that way, even after a couple of decades in the US.
My daughter mocked me yesterday when she asked me to speak like a Jamaican. “When I did that you could not understand me,” I told her. I uttered a few phrases and one of her favourite lines: “We’s don’t plays ‘ockey. We’s h’eats h’ackee.” She giggled. Later in the afternoon, when she was at her swimming practice, one of her young team mates blurted out “Your Dad has an English accent! Say ‘Hello'” I smiled and said “Howdy,” He grabbed his head in his hands.
I know how people are influenced by the way you speak and I often get a good laugh when people in America say “You have an accent.” They then start guessing where I came from, taking the flat English sound as definitive. I then throw in some patois. They make another turn. I then speak some French. Oh, boy! That throws them. Then, maybe, I speak a little Russian, and they are totally confused. I’ve picked up a few languages through my work so, I can keep the game going quite a while. If I were mercenary, I should take the Mitt Romney approach and bet them $10,000 to see if they can get it right.
But, the fun of the game is there only when you meet and speak to people. It has had little or no mileage with e-mail and other forms of Internet communication. But, maybe, I should start to change that. Last week, I borrowed from the library Dohra Ahmad’s anthology of writing in different variations of English, Rotten English. There are a few countries, such as The Seychelles, that have made formal and official their variation of English. How would the world react if I started to rediscover my Jamaican voice or drift into Cockney in my written communications? May be worf a try? Me culd fool nuff a de peeple?