Thursday, December 23, 2010

Linguistic Preserves or How to Use Language to be Powerful

Okay. So I am always having this problem. It has to do with how much we use language to isolate people rather than bring them together, to construct divisions among groups rather than promote community, to confuse rather than clarify – all in the interests of power. This is something complicated enough to merit yet another book, for many books have been written about it, I'm sure. But I don't have the time, nor in all likelihood the competence, to write any such book. So I will try to tell a story, my story, instead.

Years ago, when New World, a sort of unstructured radical movement that arose in and around UWI, Mona, Jamaica, in the seventies, began to publish New World Quarterly, in an earnest effort to persuade the editors to make the writing in the journal available to anybody who could read, I found myself at Lloyd Best's house on the UWI Mona campus, attempting to 'translate' the academic-speak of one article into plain English. I can recall vividly tackling a footnote that referred to an observation by Alister McIntyre about the ingenuity of peasant farmers in the Caribbean who rotated crops on their small acreages so as to get the best yields, despite constraints of size.

Nothing ever came of the initiative to simplify, of course.
New World spoke its erudite way to its untimely end.

The truth is that the powerful reserve languages to and for themselves. If you don't believe me, try getting an explanation of what happened to make the world economy collapse. Financial operatives, in plain speak (PS after this – BS is Bull Speak), those who run things in the money world, keep their affairs to themselves. It is, in BS, obfuscation twice over, or, in PS, secrets on top of secrets. Those money folks are as often as not up to no good, and where regulators insist on transparency (BS for keeping things out in the open and above board), a good way to hide them anyway is to talk about them using names and terms ordinary people cannot understand: sub-prime mortgages, derivatives, toxic loans, eurozone, etc. etc.

It’s not a habit confined to the worlds of finance, or law, or medicine, or science. My friend Jennifer broke my heart when she told me she had tried to read but couldn't understand Walcott's poetry. I love Walcott, and Brathwaite, and Brodber, and Brand, and Wilson Harris. They all take hard reading, sometimes, as do heaps of other writer folks. And that's okay. Writers are free to write as they see fit.

But writers need also to have vision, to be savvy, to make informed political choices. And if people read fiction and poetry, story and song, less and less, even as they listen to popular music more and more, it may have something to do with the fact of
how as well as what writers have chosen to write about.

It takes me five years or so to produce a book of poetry or fiction, so I don't have a lot of writing to which to refer as I try to illustrate this point, but I’ll try nonetheless.

In 1995, Sister Vision Press published de man: a performance poem. I've talked about it up here before. It's the crucifixion story in Jamaican Creole. It's been performed many, many times in Canada, the Caribbean and who knows where else, and it's been taught (as I've recently discovered) in several universities in the US and Canada. George Elliott Clarke calls it a 'revolutionary work', though it's largely been ignored by critics in the Caribbean and doesn't even figure in Canadian Hugh Hodges’ survey on religion in Jamaican poetry, Soon Come, published by U. of Virginia Press.

The important point about
de man, for this argument, is that it's in ordinary people's language. Anybody can understand it. I think, at first half-knowing and then more consciously, I took my cue from that book about how I would write, probably till Jesus comes. My next book of poetry, Certifiable (2001), contains many story poems and many poems in plain Jamaican English, as does The True Blue of Islands (2005), the poetry collection after that. My first collection of short fiction, Pink Icing (2006) has many stories seen through the eyes of children and told in their voices. It too uses Jamaican English. And the collection of sonnets that I have just completed, never mind that they are sonnets, is also as plain as can be. You’ve seen a couple of those sonnets here.

Lest anyone think I am suggesting that plain English or Jamaican Creole dumbs things down, dilutes them or condemns them not to eschew (BS for ‘stay clear of’) complexity, I refer them to the writings of Jean D’Costa and Dennis Craig on creole as a literary medium.

Mark you, I think I can confuse and confound with the best of us. I love big words, and like every good Jamaican, I thrive on confusion. But I understand that the Tower of Babel was punishment. That breakdown in communication is something to be struggled against.

Thus, creole-speaking children, wherever in the world they are, should learn the standard languages whose lexicons their creoles employ. They need to be able to make themselves understood outside the small community of creole-speakers. Dutch and Danish people learn languages other than their own for exactly the same reason. There are not that many people who speak Dutch and Danish in the world. If they want to talk to a wider audience, they need to know other languages.

There are more urgent reasons: not every creole-speaking person hauled before the law in a foreign country, for example, will get the benefit of a translator. Jail time because you cannot truly have your day in court, on account of nobodi kyaan unustan yu, an yu kyaan unerstan dem is very far from justice done. Similarly, a creole speaker who cannot fluently describe to, say, a paramedic or an emergency-room doctor what symptoms she is experiencing might well be at serious risk.

In fact, creole speakers and non-creole speakers should learn Mandarin and Hakka and Russian and Swahili and Greek and Krio – as many languages as they can grasp. Look at Eminem and Sinéad O'Connor as they besi dung into our languages, and take example!

The powerful preserve their power by using language as a tool when they make language policy as well, as, for example, those persons in the Caribbean who are versatile in standard and creole languages and fail to encourage creole speakers to learn standard languages. Indeed, there should be a requirement that all creole speakers achieve a solid competence in a standard language since, as I’ve tried to show, it may prove a matter of life and death. The policymakers are the powerful. They are equipped. They well know that every new language is an arsenal. So how come they don’t want everyone to have more linguistic guns?

When finally we beat our swords into ploughshares, I suspect that peace will be a great silence in which we listen to the music of praise and rejoicing and speak not a word. “Peace on earth,” the angels sang at the baby’s birth. Peace to the benevolent, those of good will – from the Latin, bene volantem, well-wishing.

Have a Happy Christmas, a Holy Channukah! Learn a new language in 2011!

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