Pronunciation, accent and so on
PERHAPS my favourite writer in the Daily Observer is Ian R. Ball
whose erudition is remarkable.
I was surprised that his entertaining piece in the Observer of July 28 did
not carry his name. The editor of the Observer should be proud to carry
Mr. Ball's name on a column.
I have only one complaint about Ian Ball. He's really a little unkind to
The Gleaner's Mary Smith. I must admit that Mary is as much bound to
her dictionaries as the average parson is to the Bible. Even good people
need support, even if that support is often flawed. Not everybody can
be as intellectually agile as Mr. Ball.
In the column I refer to Mr. Ball brought up the word "often", which brings
me to observe that pronunciation is essentially an exercise in
snobbery, a defect from which, in matters of pronunciation, I greatly
suffer. Incidentally, I'd be grateful if Mr. Ball, in his next piece, could
how it has come about that the word snob, which means a shoemaker, has come
to indicate snootiness. A good shoemaker is, after all, a
valuable person. Very few leading people and certainly no intellectuals can
protect us from corns and bunions.
Back now to "often". I always say "often", not for any sound reason, but
simply because I was brought up and educated among people who
said "often". Which of course is an example of snobbery.
I get irritated when people pronounce the 't'. I get even more irritated at
the Jamaican habit of writing "oftentimes". But then let me once again
confess my snobbery by saying that I am completely steeped in the English
habit of calculating social class on the basis of accent; a strange
business which as far as I know is unique to the English.
At this point I would like to indulge in a deviation. During the second
World War, when there was a fear of invasion, it was also feared that an
invading enemy would seek to control all broadcasting stations. In
consequence, a small department of experts was set up. Because Germans,
Italians and the French, for example, speaking perfect English, might thus
be able to deceive the British people, the job of these experts was to
detect the nationality of these broadcasters no matter how well they spoke
Two of these experts came to see me one day at the Ministry of Information.
They told me that they were experts in what they called
"background" accents. They told me that by spotting background accents they
could place not only the parts of England, Scotland, Wales or
Ireland, that a broadcaster come from but should also spot the nationality
of any foreigner no matter how perfectly he spoke English.
One of them said to me: "I do hope, Cargill that you will forgive us asking
you a certain question. We heard you speak on the BBC. On the
surface you have an English public school accent. But we know from your
background accent that you are not English, but we can't figure out
who the hell you are. Please forgive us for asking."
"The answer to that one is easy," I said. "I am a Jamaican."
"Good God!" said the man, "we never thought of that one."
Oddly enough they were not the only people to be puzzled. When I thought I
was to be sent into France I acquired a French Mistress. That
sounds romantic but wasn't. She was a staid elderly lady. But she said to
me, "you know Mr. Cargill when you read French you don't sound like
"Not surprising," I replied. "I am West Indian."
"No," I said. "Jamaica."
So you see how one pronounces English is a very complex matter which is
quite beyond me and probably even beyond Mr. Ball. The English
are very accent-sensitive.
Talking of which, will Mr. Ball please complete his piece on serendipity?
His columns are wonderfully serendipitous. But how did we end up
with that difficult name Sri Lanka? Serendip was once the name for Ceylon.
It was about Ceylon that the good Bishop Heber wrote "Where
every prospect pleases but only man is vile". I don't know about Sri Lanka,
but that would be an admirable description of Jamaica today.
I must finally add that I have nothing whatever against the Jamaican
accent. But I am thoroughly opposed to Yahoolish.
We have had what we call Independence for nearly 40 years yet, except for
possibly a very brief period during the 1950s and 1960s, we have
maintained ourselves by borrowing from or sponging upon others. Which means
that we have never lost our slave mentality. If we continue to
speak like slaves we shall continue to think and behave like slaves. I
would dearly like to see our Independence become a reality rather than a
I STAND CORRECTED
I have received the following letter from Mr. Alec Durie of the Times:
"After reading your article in today's Gleaner I can safely say that you
did not take part in Admiral Perry's landing in Japan in the last century.
If you had you would have discovered that the "Bound Feet" custom was a
Chinese practice amongst the upper class women to show that they
did not have to work for their living.
The Chinese also grew their fingernails to an inordinate length, sometimes
over 12 inches, protecting them in jewelled sheaths to demonstrate
their social prominence. (Can you imagine going through your whole life
without having to wipe your own behind?).