Of protocol and The Queen's H'English

Loyd B Smith

Tuesday, January 28, 2014    

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THERE is patois and there is dialect. Then there is Standard English. But there is also The Queen's H'English which many Jamaicans speak, especially in a formal setting. I have been to many functions where I am introduced as "Mista Lyde Bee Simit". Indeed, in one instance it was the principal of a primary school who so introduced me. I cringed, then laughed. After all, it is no secret that for many of us "speaking properly" is quite a challenge.

Now let me very frank. I have nothing against speaking patois or dialect. But it dawned on me from an early age -- thanks in part to my grandmother and mother, the dear departed -- that being able to express oneself fluently in Standard English can open many doors of opportunity for social and economic advancement. In this context, it must be remembered that Jamaican patois or dialect is for many of us our first "langwig". That is why I have always maintained that Standard English should be taught as a second language. In this vein, I am particularly pleased with the decision by the Ministry of Education to include oral English as part of the examination process in high schools.

What is oftentimes overlooked is that many Jamaicans feel intimidated and suffer from an inferiority complex because of their inability to speak Standard English. Of course, very successful ones, like our athletes and entertainers, could not care a damn: "U no see't. Yeah man, u dun know! I are the one." What becomes irritating, though, is when they "twang" (put on an American accent). Watching the evening news on TVJ and CVM-TV is always a treat, as even in the most serious of situations the persons interviewed, in an attempt to impress, speak the most lurid H'English.

In real terms, this is part of the schizophrenic nature of our society which needs to be addressed by officialdom and academia. Louise Bennett, cultural icon extraordinaire and the in-your-face academic Dr Carolyn Cooper have tried to change the language/langwig landscape, but our formal educational system still maintains the environment in which people are said to be "speaking badly"; much in the same way that we speak about "bad hair" and "anything too black no good". I have always given these examples of the various ways in which Jamaicans express themselves: Mi nah go ova deh"(patois/dialect); I am not going over there (Standard English); and "Hi en hi his nat goin' ova dere" (The Queen's H'English).

Throw in the business of protocol into this matter of public expression and the situation becomes even more bizarre. Especially since I have become a member of Parliament and deputy speaker of the House, there is hardly a function that I attend where protocol is properly observed -- even by those who should know better.

According to the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, protocol is the official procedure or system of rules governing affairs of State or diplomatic occasions; the accepted code of procedure or behaviour in a particular situation. How many Jamaicans know the difference between the head of State and the head of Government? Who is Jamaica's First Lady? Who takes precedence at an official function, the custos or the mayor? Who is honourable, most honourable and right honourable? Is there such a person as mistress of ceremonies or chairwoman?

Perhaps there are too many titles to contend with. Just look at the American system which is simple and straightforward. Mr President and that is it. Sometime ago, I was at a country wedding reception during which an elderly gentleman was called upon to toast the bride's parents and he began thus: "Madame Mistress of Ceremony, extinguish guesses, ladies and gentlemanses..." And how many times have we heard: "Govana Ginaral or even worse "Ginnal"?

Merrick Needham, our protocol guru, needs to be engaged to do some seminars and workshops islandwide among public and private sector entities, because what now passes as protocol is pathetic. One of the things I would like him to clear up is, during a function at which there are numerous dignitaries and distinguished guests, should everyone that gets up to speak reel off all the names ad nauseum? Some persons try to diplomatically get around this by saying, "All protocol(s) observed." But is this correct thing to do?

Nowadays, too, just about everybody is a doctor (mostly holders of a PhD or an honorary doctorate). What amazes me many times is that many of these esteemed individuals have extreme difficulties speaking "properly". One would have thought that such qualified persons would at least be able to deliver themselves in the expected way. But, alas, the H'English Langwig is "massacrawed" (massacred) from beginning to end.

What with the proposed decriminalisation of cannabis sativa (ganja) and "sanitising" of the practice of obeah, it may well be argued that the patois or dialect should be officially dubbed as our first language and be treated with the necessary protocol. My only difficulty with this proposition is that most times when our patois/dialect is spoken, except for when such utterances are laced with Jamaican "badwords" it tends to elicit laughter. Go to a Jamaican play and once the patois/dialect is used, no matter how serious the scene, the audience will erupt into laughter -- a phenomenon that foreigners have difficulty understanding. Then again, we always "tek serious tings mek joke." Just observe what happens at scenes of tragedies, "pure kin teeth".

Seriously, though, the observance of protocol and the effective use of the English Language -- we are an English-speaking country -- must be given priority treatment. As part of our sovereignity, oops, I meant sovereignty, we inherited the English Language, which is arguably the most global of all languages. So it is in fact an asset that we should cherish, notwithstanding that it is also the language of our former slave masters and colonisers.

In the final analysis, there are far too many Jamaicans who feel less of a person and therefore oftentimes become overly aggressive rather than assertive because they cannot "speak the speech... trippingly on the tongue (from Shakespeare's Hamlet). I am gone or should I say "Mi gawn" or even better, "I is gorn".

Lloyd B Smith is a member of Parliament and deputy speaker of the House of Representatives. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the People's National Party or the Government of Jamaica.





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