An epidemic of 'Panglish'
This month, hundreds of thousands of Jamaicans are back to school, with the goal of passing their exams, including the difficult subject of English language. Linguists tell us that English is a difficult language, not because it has so many rules (every language has rules), but because each rule has so many exceptions. To learn English is to learn the rules of grammar and syntax, spelling, and pronunciation - and their many exceptions.
Looking back at my own life, I have come to accept that the big reason I learnt English so well was because in my youth, I spent a lot of time reading - mystery and adventure stories, cowboy stories, novels and short stories, and non-fiction. My prep school had a library, from which I frequently borrowed, and I joined the Tom Redcam Library at an early age. There, I read good English and built up my vocabulary, became accustomed to the proper flow of words and their spelling and punctuation options. Verbs matched subjects in number, had complex but nuanced tenses, moods and voices, and infinitives were not split.
My exposure to English
My parents and my teachers spoke good English, and I began to match what I was reading with what I was hearing. After a while, you know when someone's English 'sounds right' and when something is wrong. My own speech and writing patterns began to reflect what I read and heard.
But most Jamaicans are not recreational readers. We are recreational talkers, and we pick up our language from the people with whom we converse. If they don't speak good English, we won't either. If they speak the Jamaican language - Jamaica Creole (some call it Patois) - then so will we. Which is OK. Our Creole is a great language, and I regret that it is being mauled in so many radio and television commercials.
But English is the official language of Jamaica, and we go to school to learn standard English. Most Jamaicans do not have a steady source of proper English from which to model our speech and our writing since we do not read enough.
As a result, Jamaica's lingua franca is neither English nor Patois, but a bastard version of both, which we can call 'Panglish'. Jamaica's language tragedy is not that so many of us do not speak English, but daily converse in Jamaican Creole. The real tragedy is that so many of us - high and low - speak Panglish when we think we are speaking English.
During this time of drought, so many of us cannot pronounce the word. We say 'jout'. And we say 'Anju' instead of Andrew; and 'jugs' instead of drugs; 'jivah' instead of driver; and 'jawing board' instead of drawing board.
We also have difficulty pronouncing the compound consonants 'tr', which we render as 'ch'. The 'chouble' is that in this 'jout', we have a shortage of 'water chucks' to 'chavel' into 'jout-stricken' communities to 'chansport' water to a 'cenchal' point. The 'chute' is dat we have cut down too many 'chees', and de 'govament' has to hire more 'conchactahs' to 'chy' and 'pachol' the forests to 'proteck' them.
Which brings me to the point that we also have difficulty with the compound consonants 'ct'. We need a 'projeck' to make 'contack' in all the rural 'districks' to develop 'tatics' to avoid 'conflick' by leaving our 'chees' 'intack' instead of using them to make 'producks'.
And famously, we also have difficulty pronouncing the compound consonants 'tl', for we say 'bakkle' instead of bottle, 'likkle' instead of little.
As schools battle with poor English results, more effort has to be placed on speech coaching in teacher-training colleges, and onwards in primary and secondary schools. Our graduates will never be described as well-spoken unless there is a concerted effort to correct errors in English pronunciation.
Merrick Needham tells me that for some years now, he has been teaching a course in related matters at the Norman Manley Law School. It is right and proper that professionals whose medium is the spoken word know how to speak proper English, as well as Patois, to deal with their clients. Gordon House should offer similar courses to its members.
Schools must have good libraries, and students must be encouraged to use them. In my day, we had to hand in book reports. We must become a society of recreational readers.
- Peter Espeut is a sociologist and social commentator. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.