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Things That Matter: English and Bajan dialect

12/9/2012

By Henry S. Fraser

Dialect: usually defined as “a regional variety of language distinguished by features of vocabulary, grammar and syntax, idiom and pronunciation from other regional varieties;” but a dialect may also be defined by other factors, such as social class – most famously the East London Cockney dialect – “a way of speaking which is typical of working class people who live there”.

The variation in Caribbean accents and dialects fascinates us all, although Europeans often don’t distinguish us and speak simply of Caribbean accents. The definition above (combining those of several dictionaries) distinguishes dialects from mere accents, where, for example, fairly standard English is spoken but with an unmistakable regional or social class accent. And most Bajans take great delight in their mastery of Bajan dialect, especially the most dramatic, humourous, expressive, and sometimes risqué idioms.

There are two books that should be in the homes of every Bajan who claims to be literate; the masterpiece Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage, by Richard Allsopp, published by the University of the West Indies Press (our answer to Samuel Johnson, Noah Webster and the hundreds of contributors to the Oxford English Dictionary); and the smaller classic Barbadian Dialect by Frank Collymore. Colly’s “Notes for a Glossary of Words and Phrases of Barbadian Dialect” first appeared in early Bim magazines, and then in book form in 1955. They still ring true although they could benefit greatly from expansion and review … Colly claimed neither to be a professional linguist nor to be comprehensive.

Other writers “in dialect” were Kathleen Catford, Bajan poet of the 1930s, Timothy Callender, Alfred Pragnell and the inimitable Jeanette Layne-Clarke, whose Lickmout Lou, Bajan Badinage and More Bajan Badinage are consistently good. And I’ve been most impressed by the collection of idioms on a new T-shirt my wife recently discovered. How many do you recognise or use, as they appear in random order on the shirt and an apron … mobaton, opitin, ovadayso, obzocky, broughtupsy (did Jeanette invent this one?), hard ears, pancart, suck salt, wunna, skylark, jipsey, chossel, spranksious, balcklead, peenie, cafuffle, cut eye, do-flicky, rock stone, cumma, barrifle, rangate, saga boy, reverse back, salt bred, long talk, georgie bundle, onneat, pooch back, duppy, cheese on bread, catspraddle, bruggadung, lemme, muddah, caniption, igrant, bullcow, bassa-bassa, collyfox, wulloss, too sweet, onliest, and nuff.

Most, but not all of these are to be found in Colly’s Barbadian Dialect, but of course there are many more noted by Colly, with his typical tongue in cheek and gentle wit – such as the “lubberly inept” person described as “a piss-to-windward” (a man, of course!)

Dialect comes in to its own most effectively in telling a story, joke or scandal, and it’s a favourite at the bar, the rum shop, the barbershop or any other gathering of peers. It can convey an image more brilliantly than run-of-the-mill standard English.

But the on-going debate about the tension between the two that “hotted up” a few months ago in the press often reveals opinions poles apart, rather than a common sense approach. Some people defend dialect to the death, anytime, anywhere with “it’s ours, it expresses us, it’s ‘just as good or better’” and so on. Others continue to think of it as “bad English, bad grammar”. And some say it’s a different language (which of course it isn’t) and therefore should be taught as a different language. Neither extreme is reasonable.

Ironically, the most eloquent, passionate advocates of dialect in recent years have been prominent personalities who are virtually bilingual – certainly bidialectical(!) and who can shift accent, grammar and syntax, pronounciation and accent completely and at will, between King’s English or BBC English and our own best Bajan dialect. Unfortunately the validation of dialect has resulted in a whole generation of under-forties who speak great dialect, but are at a loss either speaking or writing standard English.

This is a tragedy for many whose other skills and careers would benefit greatly from the ability to speak standard English as well. In fact, while we love the idioms quoted above, and while our accent is difficult to lose, there aren’t so many other differences that we can’t sort them out in primary school. The English have come to accept the popular “intrusive r” and it virtually characterises what they now call Estuary English … grammar school or middle-class English spoken in South East England around the Thames! It’s the r added to words like draw if it’s followed by another vowel …. i.e. saying “drawRing another picture …” instead of “drawing another”. And it defines a South East Englander. But saying “fink” instead of “think” defines a working class Londoner, like Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, before she was coached by Professor Higgins (whom she, like Jamaicans, called Professor ‘Iggins).

Can’t our primary school teachers teach the difference between axe and ask? Or between “three” and “tree”? Or between “this” and “dis”? There are so few differences, it shouldn’t be too tricky … unlike the many more differences in Jamaican dialect … but it can make a difference in many careers and even in being understood outside of Barbados. And while we may love to tell a hard-ears saga boy wid nuh brought-upsy, who gets catspraddled in a bassa-bassa “Da fuh lick yuh, Bo!” we certainly shouldn’t use it either in the classroom, to a foreigner or in Parliament.

(Professor Fraser is Past President of the Barbados National Trust, and past Dean of Medical Sciences, UWI.)

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