A 2007 column gets another outing…
In his most recent address to the nation, Prime Minister Spencer spoke to the issue of our culture, promising that no external organisation would make us compromise. He was referring, of course, to the staging of Cricket World Cup here, with its attendant dos and do nots. But, a week later, we are facing another – this time homegrown – threat to our traditions.
The Ministry of Education has issued a series of edicts, ostensibly aimed at improving the quality of school life and curbing those students and teachers that appear to be out of control. While the effort itself has merit, many of the guidelines could use further debate without the emotionalism.
We, however, stand unapologetically in defense of what locals fondly (and/or distastefully) refer to as “dialect.” This does not automatically mean that we are opposed to the teaching and practice of standard English. In fact, we demand it! We simply do not see why the two languages cannot peacefully co-exist, recognising their time and place, on the school compound.
No less a venerable institution than Oxford University Press has acknowledged the validity of Caribbean dialects, having published the 697-page Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage, which was compiled, researched and verified by a distinguished team of Caribbean, African, Indian, European and even Chinese academics, headed by Richard Allsop. Is dialect – with its linguistic appreciation and analysis; its imagery and its functionality; its heritage and its hybridism – to become the domain, the privilege, of intellectuals only? Is dialect to become a dead language, valued for what it used to be and classified as a primitive form of communication?
In this era of mass migration, when small countries’ traditions and values stand to be swamped by those of the immigrant waves, is Antigua & Barbuda simply going to surrender without even an attempt to protect what is ours? Already, other words and phrases, intonations and gestures, body language and attitudes have infiltrated our language. Seamlessly, mammie has become baby-mother; barbecue has succumbed to jerk; maid has been traded in for helper; man getting horn instead of knuckle; flash has been blinded by bling; and savannah is trying hard to encroach upon pasture.
Unnu see how dem a eye-pass we?
Many Antiguans and Barbudans lived and died after having spent years in the school system without ever seeing themselves represented – except in some illustration of slaves packed below deck, as they studied the European version of the Middle Passage. They learned to recite Wordsworth and Longfellow, to quote Shakespeare, and to ponder Milton, all in the cadences of stiff-upper-lip English. And, no doubt, as little black and brown children, they understood, without being told, that theirs was a language without validity or value, since it was replicated nowhere.
Understandably, Caribbean parents – ever ambitious for them pickney – underscored the message that dialect was backward; the speech of the ignorant; and not to be spoken in one’s upward mobility. As a result, speech served to divide “us” from “them,” and a person’s worth was often measured by his ability to put his tongue between his teeth and say “th.”
Happily, as more Caribbean nearga got eddycation, we began to see the light: that dialect was a language separate but equal to standard English; that it authenticated our stories; that it elevated speech to art; and that its mastery could, and did, stamp its user as bilingual. We learned to appreciate not only the lyricism of, but the sentiment behind, one grandmother calling over the fence to another: “Sissa! Whar do?” And its answering, “Me dey, Mammie; me dey!”
We learned to admire the achievements of Jamaican pioneer Auntie Roachie and thereby to support our own Joy Lawrence’s celebration of our twang. And we exulted in Bob Marley’s rendition of “Dem a go tired fih see me fyace,” confident that “they” – whoever they might be – could no longer keep us out of the race.
In the absence of written history, the staple of Caribbean culture has been the oral tradition, a practice passed down from the African griot. Accordingly, in addition to the wisdom of our folk tales, Antiguans and Barbudans’ history has been contained within the anecdotes of our calypsos and preserved in the unique expressions of our dialect.
Imagine Obstinate’s “Wet Yuh Hand:” Two women were in an altercation on Greenbay Hill; and having returned from work, I found them cursing still. Imagine Shortshirt’s “Fighting:” And I’m hearing, Bang! Bang! Crash! Bottles and stones were being pelted. Or Burning Flames’ “Bicycle:” I don’t want any brakes!
Yes, there are problems, serious-serious problems, in the school system and with students and even teachers; and, yes, the Ministry of Education must take steps to address them. But integral to problem-solving is openness of communication, not strictures of language. Accordingly, we hope the authorities will reconsider their position, instead of giving away the belly of our culture and allowing it to be stuffed with someone else’s trash.