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Sunday, April 22, 2007

Is English We Speaking


Dr. Lester CN Simon

One find day, destined to be made wretched by a vacuous salesgirl, I was in a delicious dilemma in a department store on my maiden visit to London, trying to explain myself to an assemblage of fine English women. I was buying a reading lamp. The bulb was sold separately. Since I was set for some hard studying long into the night for one year, I decided to purchase two bulbs instead of one. The smiling salesgirl seemed bemused and amused by my West Indian English twang. She beckoned to another perky salesgirl who waltzed up to the counter allegro con moto and asked me to repeat my request.

By this time, the music in the store had changed to Air on a G string by Johann Sebastian Bach. I have to confess that it did occur to me that Bach’s pleasing Air on a G string might have modulated from the G string of the violin to its perfect meaning had she been sunbathing on Dark Wood Beach in Antigua. But by then I was so distraught I simply repeated, slowly, that I wanted two bulbs. To my unforgettable amazement, the airy, fairy one said, “Did you say toe?” Between my two and her toe, I heard myself exclaiming, exasperatingly (in central London), “Lady, why don’t you speak English!”

The concern about not speaking dialect in school is opening up a debate that we must entertain. The paradox of colonial identity haunts every West Indian from the teenager in the sex video who spoke in abject dialect to the 1992 Nobel Laureate for Literature, Derek Alton Walcott. Yes, A West Indian was valorized by the Swedish Academy for discovering the English language 500 years after we discovered Christopher Columbus.

All of us in post-colonial societies in general, and school children in particular, are caught on the horns of the dialectics of dialect. The creativity in our native dialect is being asked to be sacrificed in lieu of the creativity of an imitative tongue. Surely the solution to this dilemma must include removing the bastardization of our natural dialect and officially embracing it whilst we embrace English, Spanish and all languages.

Louise Bennett told us through her Aunty Roachy that if dialect is a corruption of English then English is a corruption of Norman French and Latin etc. Here’s one for the school pikiniega: The great Shakespeare, Chaucer and Robert Burns whom we revere so much, (Who you trying to fool with your ploy?) wrote dialect that to an Antigua Grammar School head boy, sounded like Dutch.

This does not mean that English must not be our official language of communication. You have to know both English and dialect well to know when and when not to confuse but to suffuse the two. We cannot love English and hate dialect. If we do, Walcott suggests that our bodies will think in one language and move in another. What an awful discordant sight that would be on parade.

When Walcott writes of how schizophrenic it is to be wrenched by two styles, he is warning us not to satisfy the notion that to change our language we must change our lives, or (I would add), that to change our lives we must completely change our language and irreverently abandon our native tongue. The very nature of a developing West Indian society is constitutively, politely schizophrenic. Walcott himself denies that he has a great original voice. He concedes that it is the chorus of voices, including dialect (I would add), that allows him to make that one beautiful song.

English and dialect are solo as well as harmonic instruments of unique timbre in an orchestra of melodious, symphonic sounds. When someone says they love English and hate dialect or vice versa or that they love songs with words and dislike songs without words, run from them fast, like a crazy man, for they are the real lunatics and are decidedly not of sound mind (if you get the pun, run).

We must be clear and sober about the uniqueness, duality, independence and interdependence of English and dialect. Another Nobel Laureate, Joseph Brodsky, reminded us that civilizations are finite and when they begin to fall, it is not legions but language that keeps the center of civilization from disintegrating. He contends that the job of holding the center often belongs to those at the periphery. (Pay attention West Indies Cricket). In this context and to paraphrase Brodsky in reference to Walcott, and to us all, the throbbing and relentless lines of anyone who values and respects the sound of language must keep arriving on the English language like tidal waves. The outcome will be the most logical thematic and stylistic evolution of the English language.

A final word of warning to those who, in desperation, want to kill dialect to save English. In a poem called The Spoiler’s Return (in reference to the calypsonian, Spoiler, “Ah Wanna Fall”), the love for the sound of languages and a musical ear for the play on words ignite Derek Walcott to write what I think is the fitting epitaph for dialect: “Tell Desperados when you reach the hill, I decompose, but I composing still”. This, a real spoiler might say, to settle the score and to try a ting, takes us back to Bach in the department store and Air on a G String.

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