21 Mar 2012

Misplaced loyalty–Our penchant for poor language skills

Again, a reposting of a worthy article.

I should like to respond to Winford James' column in the Express of March 15 headlined "Licensed to speak Trinbagonian''.

The sentiments expressed in it, and especially in the headline can have a serious negative effect on the efforts of English teachers  throughout this country who are trying against serious odds to help their students master the skills of reading, writing and speaking Standard English as it is used in Trinidad and Tobago. This article is likely to add another disincentive to those students who are reluctant to make the effort to acquire Standard English on the ground that they are now, like Dr James, "licensed to speak Trinbagonian". 

One of the regrettable features of this article is that Dr James does not state where and when he is "licensed to speak Trinbagonian''.  He certainly is free to speak it in Tobago, almost anywhere, even in the Tobago House of Assembly, if he wants. But his license to speak Tobagonian with impunity is limited to the Tobagonian speech community in which he so proudly boasts, with some justification, I suppose, to have been socialised. 

Once a speaker moves out of his native speech community, however, he must adapt his speech to the standards of the new speech community if he wants to make maximum communication and to avoid being identified as an outsider by his speech patterns and pronunciation, not to mention his accent.

Given that there are several different speech communities co-existing in our nation, it is necessary for speakers to acquire at least an operating knowledge of more than one of these so as to be able to socialise with a wider range of the population. 

It is also necessary for all speakers to develop a proficiency in the use of the main language of official discourse in the country, the language in which an understanding of the outside world is communicated to our people and in which our children are educated. It is puerile to cast aspersions on those who seek to attain a mastery of standard English and put down those who would help us on the way to a greater appreciation and awareness of where our efforts fall short of acceptable international standards.

I come now to Dr James' postulation that Mr Dookeran's use of the commonly used pronunciation  for the word "licence",(lie sn) (Dr James' phonetic spelling) is the result of his "apocopating a noun" which he explains for us lesser mortals, as "trimming its plural looking end and pluralising it by adding the English plural suffix "s".  He goes on to explain that "licence" has an "s" sound at the end, which has a pluralising function in English. This is just so much quasi-academic fiddle-addle.

"Licence'' does not have a plural looking ending. It has a plural sounding ending, as Dr James points out himself.  Words with a plural looking ending include: "innings'', "series'' and "species'', all of which are rendered by several writers, and many students without their final "s'' when they attempt to use them as singular nouns. But words like defence, offence, incense, pretense all have plural sounding endings but not plural looking endings, (they do not end in an "s'') and are never subjected by our speakers to any "apocopation" to use the new word so generously given to me by the learned columnist.

No.  Mr Dookeran did not engage in any clipping of the plural sounding end of the word licence.  He pronounced the word (lie sn) because that was the word for that document or permission in common use by his speech community. It is a pronunciation that was common to probably the majority of speech communities all over Trinidad.   

When I was growing up, we all knew that those of us fortunate enough to have bicycles had to (lie sn) their bikes before the police charged them for riding an (unlie sn) bicycle on the public road. We knew that the owner of the rum shop had to have a liquor (lie sn)  and that later on in life, we had to apply for a (lie sn) to sell alcohol at a public fete. (Lie snz) were part and parcel of our growing up. We heard and used the word long before we ever saw it in print. 

Some of the more fortunate  members of our group who went to schools which engaged in regular spelling quizzes would have learnt that this word, so regularly pronounced (lie sn), was really spelt "licence" and we lauded the new knowledge over our less fortunate playmates. The point I am making is that the language of a speech community is essentially an oral one and that words like  toolum, chataign, kaimet, grugru, grigri, pomesetay, potigal, paymee, provisions, making message, drivay, making/breaking biche, macomere, compere, poitik, lagniappe, kalpet, tri-aye (the fore-runner of jacks) and rounders were all words that were part of the social life of the times that hardly ever saw life on a printed page. Some of them have not survived, others have stayed the course with rather different spellings.

Some of the younger members of that speech community have, by dint of education at various levels, have acquired some, or many, or most, of the language skills of Standard English.  They can still operate in the dialect of the speech community of their youth.  But they have learned that every community has a legitimate area of functioning and operates best with the language in which they are most competent to perform. 

They have learned to discriminate. They have learned when the dialect of their youth is no longer appropriate in certain places and on certain occasions, and thankfully they have the linguistic skills required for them to perform competently in the more formal arena.

To hold on to the dialect pronunciation of certain words when the standard English version is preferable, simply because it is the  part of the language that one was socialised  is to pay a misplaced and exaggerated sense of loyalty to a mere accident of our upbringing. To have such a sentiment transferred to our youth today is a decidedly backward step.

Clive B Borely is an educator