Diction wise, comprehension foolish

Michael Burke

Thursday, September 27, 2012    

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We have all heard of the adage, "Penny wise, pound foolish". One instance could be the position taken by Jamaica Labour Party councillor Duane Smith who objects to the Kingston and St Andrew Council having a retreat on the north coast. Several entities plan retreats for areas outside of Kingston to encourage attendance in the face of so many distractions. When the late Kenneth Jones, then minister of communications and works died (officially from sleep-walking), the Cabinet was on a retreat in Montego Bay. That was 48 years ago in 1964.

Five years ago in 2007 the Jamaica Co-operative Credit Union League had its annual general meeting on a cruise ship plying back and forth between Miami and Cancun, Mexico, to mark its 65th anniversary. I was against the staging of the AGM on a cruise ship. I did not think it was fair and just to oblige credit unions to limit their democracy by choosing as delegates only those who had US visas, and I am still of that view. However, the AGM that year was in fact on a cruise ship between Miami and Mexico and I was there as one of the delegates.

A delegate for another credit union was Ansel Lee who is a Rastafarian, a national football referee and a civil servant. In addressing the AGM, he made reference to the almost 100 per cent attendance of credit union delegates at that AGM and that such attendance had not occurred at AGMs in previous years. He was correct, although I disagreed in principle with the AGM being held in circumstances requiring a visa.

While some are penny wise and pound foolish, others are diction wise and comprehension foolish. Gleaner columnist Gordon Robinson gave his views on teaching the dialect in schools (Sunday, September 23). But his statement that the dialect cannot be used to teach English is correct only in theory.

Robinson's opinion is based on the Twi language of the Ashanti peoples that makes up the Jamaican patois. He pointed out that Twi is not a language structured on the definition of words, but one in which messages are communicated by tone rather than the words used. However, I have used the dialect to teach English at CXC level in evening classes between 1994 and 2001, with huge success.

The texts I quoted were Jamaica Labrish by Louise Bennett and When me was a bwoy by Charles Hyatt. I also used random dialect quotes. And since they say, "You can't argue with success", Robinson is incorrect in practice. However, if the Twi language is more about tone than actual words used, as Gordon Robinson has said, then we should abolish the anti-bad word law. The Jamaican bad words are actually from the Twi language, so indecent language has more to do with tone and not words.

When I first attended Jamaica College in 1964, there was a boy in third form who was from Grange Hill, Westmoreland. He had won a government scholarship, which meant that he had the right to board, and JC was then a boarding school. One day after classes in January 1965, he was playing cricket with his peers. The boy from Grange Hill batted away the ball. He then said, "Bowl wan nedda wan jus like de hedda wan mek me lick yu weh fi six".

The student from Grange Hill, Westmoreland, now 60 years old and married with grown children, now lives in California. He visited Jamaica last month, and no, he does not speak like that anymore. But when I taught English, sometimes I would ask each student in the class to translate his statement into Standard English as one of the random quotes mentioned earlier.

I got answers like "Bowl another just like the other in order that I might bowl you for six runs"; "Bowl in a manner similar to that which you did previously to enable me to score six runs", and "I desire to make six runs so when you bowl again, do so identically to the way you bowled immediately before now".

JC's woodwork teacher of the 1960s and 70s died earlier this year. Standard English was a major challenge for him. Was he cautioned by the then principal Hugo Chambers to speak proper English when he started teaching at JC in 1959? I do not know, but it is reasonable to imagine that he was.

One day the woodwork teacher saw three boys who were perhaps up to some "boys will be boys" mischief. He called them by saying, "Both of you three boys come here. Don't sneak away, I have already sawn you." That classic command was issued before I entered JC, but it was still a topic of amusement among students from upper sixth to first form. Indeed, the JC students of the 1960s still talk and laugh about it in 2012.

In an age when youngsters were brought up by the adage, "Money does not grow on trees", one day the woodwork teacher said to a student in class: "Boy, stop wasting the wood. Do you think wood grow on trees?" Question for debate: Would it have been better for the woodwork teacher simply to speak in the dialect and avoid being an object of comic relief for his students?



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