Thursday, 22 November 2012

Lively English

The young woman was pleasant and polite. At the counter in Costa’s, she stood back to let me through, laughing off my apology.

‘No, no,’ she said, ‘please. I haven’t made up my mind yet. You go right ahead.’

She was dark-skinned like many of my compatriots, and spoke perfect southern-British English with a slight hint of the lilt that betrays a West Indian background. A long way in the background.

I found a table and slumped at it, exhausted. Despite decades of doing them, I still fall apart after a presentation, brought down by the aftermath of the adrenalin rush. In this instance, it hadn’t helped that I’d only discovered the day before that I was expected to talk for an hour, not twenty minutes; the extra work on my material had left me little over five hours for sleep. I stared at my coffee oblivious to my surroundings and concentrated on getting my breath back.

Until I heard voices from the table next to mine, and realised that the woman from the counter had joined a friend there. They were chatting – and I could have been in Kingston, Jamaica. The West Indian accent is magical, and I was getting it strong and rich from those two women.

And that got me thinking. English is becoming rather too homogenised for my liking. There are no real dialects, except perhaps in West Africa. The lack of variation is underlined by the way people insist on referring to the differences one comes across in Yorkshire or Louisiana as being dialectal, whereas in reality they’re just regional accents.

It’s true of course that American do have their quaint little ways. Calling a lift an elevator, for instance. While you may need to lift something to lower it, how on earth do you get downstairs in something designed to elevate you?

However, those little quirks to one side, there’s little to choose between British and American usage. If I ever have trouble understanding Americans, it’s not 
usually a linguistic problem but sheer amazement that anyone can make that kind of statement in any language – you know, references to legitimate rape or to 47% of the population living on benefits.

The same thing happens in England, when I hear the language of rights in the mouths of politicians who have done so much to limit them. It
’s worse in their case, since they speak standard English. I hasten to add that ‘standard English’ is, naturally, the language spoken by us standard Englishmen, in case anyone in the colonies is still labouring under any confusion on the subject.

What astonished me in the café was to realise that the two young women at the next table had no trouble expressing themselves in standard English, and then switching to something far more Jamaican when talking to each other. And it wasn’t the first time I’d come across the phenomenon: I know at least one other West Indian who speaks very differently with someone from the same part of the world than with a monolingual standard-English speaker.

It’s just like a Frenchman speaking English in London, but switching back to French with a compatriot. Or more to the point, a Dane: I was astonished by the quality of English in Copenhagen.The more I heard it the more I realised that the Danes don’t speak English as a foreign language, they speak it as a second language. Their mastery of it is quite as good as good as many a native speaker’s.

Copenhagen, great English-speaking city
‘Can we get a meal?’ I asked, in English, of a waitress who’d addressed me in Danish.

‘I’ll check if you like,’ she replied in my language, ‘but this is a restaurant.’

I’m not used to having my stupid remarks put down with swift banter by anyone with only a foreigner's grasp of the language. Which is what made me realise I wasn’t dealing with a foreigner. Sure, technically she was, in that she held the citizenship of another country, but she belonged to the same speech community as mine. The Danish accent is a regional accent not a foreign one. The difference is only that Danes speak another language too, and use it among themselves.

Just like the two West Indians in Costa’s. They’ve mastered two linguistic codes and know which one goes in which context. OK, unlike Danish, the code they use to each other is close enough to mine for me to understand them with ease. That wouldn
’t have been the case had they been speaking Danish. 

But still what they have is a dual code. And in poor sad dialect-impoverished English I found that fascinating. At last – evidence of that variety that Italian or Portuguese, German or Spanish take for granted. That can only enrich the language.

So my visit to a plain old West London Costa’s turned out to be rather more interesting an interlude than I’d expected.

Which in turn was a good tonic to help me recover from the presentation.

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