By Kiki Melvelle |
Who is to say dat your English is betta dan mine? When I walked into a McDonald’s fast food restaurant fifteen years ago in the Bronx with a $100 bill in my hand and say to the young lady behind the counter “wha is the biggest money you guys take?” I was answered with a “huh?” and a puzzled looked on her face. I then repeated myself thinking that probably the young lady did not hear my question the first time. This time she responded with an “I do not understand.” In my attempt to explain, my friend quickly snatched the money from my hand and asked in her assimilated American accent, “what is the largest bill you guys accept?” That moment, standing there and observing the interaction between my friend and that young lady, made me feel inferior. But this is not the only place I have experienced inferiority and ignorance toward my English or “dialect.” I remember as a young girl back in my country we would worship the new accents of nationals when they returned home from spending time abroad, secretly imitating them and wishing we were the ones speaking like they do because everyone now says “dey talkin nice.”
Many writers like Louise Bennett have expressed their revulsion towards cultural imperialism’s influence on language, or should I say language imperialism. Louise Bennett is a West Indian author and poet. (A West Indian is someone who was born and raised in the predominantly English-speaking Caribbean countries.) Ms. Bennett was born and raised on the Island of Jamaica and later migrated to London, England. While in London Ms. Bennett was faced with many prejudiced and crude comments about her Jamaican dialect. With her many different poetic and non-conformist views towards the “Standard English Language,” in one in particular, Ms. Bennett helped dismantle the beliefs that “Jamaican dialect is a corruption of the English Language.”
In her short comedic monologue titled “Jamaican Language,” Ms. Bennett talks about her Aunt Roachy who gets really annoyed and disgusted with people who condemned her Jamaican dialect. She went on to say that if the Jamaican dialect is considered a corruption of the English Language, then the English Language should also be considered a corruption of the Norman French because this is where Standard English derived from. To add more fuel to the fire, Ms. Bennett wrote and performed this monologue in her native Jamaican Language/dialect with intentions of poking fun at the English Language and all its rules. Besides that, Bennett wanted to inform the ignorant that she could also write the words that she speaks from her dialect. She said, “My Aunt Roachy seh dat it bwile her temper an really bex her fi true anytime she hear anybody a style we Jamaican dialec as corruption of the English Language. For if dat be de case, den dem shoulda call English Language corruption of Norman French an Latin an all dem tarra language what dem seh dat English is derived from.”
Bennett also makes fun of the word “derived,” which accentuates the “proper and refined” overtones of the English Language, and at the same time points out the double standards when she says “Oonoo hear de wud? Derived, English is a derivation but Jamaican Dialect is corruption.” Bennett also talks about the suppression of her Aunt Roachy’s ancestor’s original Language and how their new Language and Dialect was formed. Bennett pinpoints a very poignant period in history when Africans were taken from their homeland and brought into the Caribbean and the Americas as slaves. This, she argues, is where our ancestors were forced to adopt a new language because their English masters could not understand their language, so slaves were beaten and reprimanded to learn English.
Moreover, Bennett glorifies some of the reasons for our unique dialect. Bennett said slaves knew that their English masters had a hard time understanding when they speak, so they incorporated their African Language with the Language of their masters in order to speak about their masters without them knowing. For instance, Bennett gave an example of this by continuing to speak her native Jamaican dialect. She explains, “Aldoah plenty a we Jamaican Dialec wuds-dem come from English wuds, yet, still an for all, de talkin is so-so Jamaican, an we ready we can meck it soun like it no got no English at all eena it! An no so-so English-talkin smaddy cyaan understan weh we a seh if we doan want dem to understan weh we a seh.”
Listen to Louise Bennett performing “Jamaican Language” (courtesy of Penn Sound)
It is almost as if we are speaking a different language besides English. How unique is that? It is not Spanish, or French, it is plain English except another English-speaking person would not be able to understand if they are not from that culture. Bennett continues to stress not only the uniqueness of being able to switch dialect so that others may not understand if we do not want them too, but the savoir-faire to speak just a few words which could take the place of an entire sentence. For example, a quote-unquote proper speaking English person would say “I got stuck by a prickle,” whereas in the Jamaican dialect, according to Bennett, it would be “Macca jook me.” And as my mother would say in regards to the proper English Language, “by de time e teck you to seh wha you sehing ah done dead ahready.”
As a person who was born and raised in the Caribbean, I often get grief from others for the way I speak. Even within my own country there is a distinction between dialects, where some are more acceptable and associated with upper class citizens and others are associated with the lower class. Because of my accent I am always believed to be Jamaican by many people who are not from the Caribbean. The beauty of my dialect is that only people from the Caribbean can actually tell which country from the Caribbean I’m from. The same goes for Europeans and Asians. Like the slaves that are pointed out in Bennett’s monologue, I myself am forced to speak at least four different Englishes so that I can be understood by whomever I am speaking to at the time. When I’m with my mother I speak Créole English, when I’m among black Americans born and raised, for example, my husband, I tend to incorporate more of his language (and why can’t I say dialect?), and very strangely enough when I’m around my friends who are white I carefully form my Th’s and R’s so that I will not get the frown brow, tilted slightly-to-the-side head, and squinted eye confused look. I remember a time one of my cousins-in-law who has no background ties to the Caribbean asked me “Do you teach Mia [my daughter] your language?” At the time my daughter was about a year old. I asked her “what language is that?” She said “the one I hear you speak with your mother.” I then said to her, my mother and I speak English. She had a hard time believing me, then I explained that we speak Créole English. We don’t really form our Th’s and R’s and we may use different words or have different names for certain things. For example: instead of saying “where is the cover for the bottle or have you seen my shoes?” which is considered Standard proper English, people in my country would say “wey de coc [not cork] for de botle and you see me shoe?”
Language has long been the topic of debate or has sat at the forefront of every ruling empire. Language defines us as a race, as a nation, as individuals. Besides the instinct to recognize some races or descendants of a particular race by their distinct physical features, a person’s vernacular or dialect is what will normally trigger the final ah ha moment in allowing someone else to pinpoint which corner of the world that person is from. Although I am not Jamaican, I can relate to the same scrutiny Bennett endured about her dialect. As in the words of Gloria Anzaldúa, a famous author of Mexican descent, “If you really want to hurt me, talk badly about my language. Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity–I am my language”.
I don’t think my friend or the cashier knew at that moment how inferior I felt as I stood there watching as they interacted and understood what the other was saying. After this experience, it took me awhile to understand that it was clearly not this young lady’s fault that she was not familiar with my accent or dialect. But, shouldn’t she have known that whether I said ‘bill’ or ‘money’ that they both meant the same thing? My friend at the time, by translating my question into American English, had only confirmed what has been said about my language, that it is inferior. Not many people have been brave enough to continue embracing their native language once they travel to a foreign country. Louise Bennett paved the way and made it so that many of us West Indians would not lose what has made us who we are. For this, I give Louise Bennett two thumbs up.
Kiki Melvelle is a senior and English major at Lehman College.