‘Me no speaky English’

How often have we spoken to someone and they look at us blankly and respond: “No speaky Englie.” The fact of the matter is that there are millions of folks out there who do not speak English, and even those of us who do, still do not understand it fully. We are still baffled by its whimsical rules. In short, English is a difficult and twisted language; an illogical language.

A teacher once asked her class, “If the plural of louse is lice and mouse is mice? What is the plural of house?” An eager student put his hand up and shouted, “hice!” Needless to say, the teacher was not amused. But she did not punish the boy even though it appeared that he was deliberately attempting to be the class clown. Instead, she used the ensuing hilarity as a teachable moment. She said that the incorrect answer was one of the many examples in the language where the grammatical or spelling rules do not always apply. In other words, one just has to know from memory the numerous and varied exceptions to the rules of English.

Consider. If the plural of wish is wishes and dish is dishes, why is the plural of fish not fishes? If the plural of box is boxes, and fox is foxes, why is the plural of ox not oxes? Why is it oxen? If the plural of tooth is teeth why is the plural of booth not beeth. The plural of goose is geese, yet the plural of moose is not meese.

Meanwhile, if a preacher preaches and a boxer boxes and a painter paints, why does not a grocer groce? And why is there no pine in our Antigua Black pineapple? Heck, it is not even an apple. And why we can’t find any eggs in the eggplant? Now we know that a vegetarian eats vegetables. Logically speaking, a humanitarian should eat, er … what? And please explain to me how noses run and feet smell. And speaking of humans and running and feet, who de hell won the human race? And how could the guy who lost the race sit despondently with his head in his hand and his eyes on the floor?

Even in the area of pronunciation, the English language is fickle and quite vexing. T-o-u-g-h is pronounced ‘tuff’ and r-o-u-g-h is pronounced ‘ruff’. Why then isn’t b-o-u-g-h pronounced ‘buff’? And forget about the many words that are spelt exactly alike but have a totally different meaning. Dove can mean a bird as well as to jump headfirst into water. It all depends on the pronunciation and context. Likewise, desert can mean a dry region as well as to abandon. Bow can mean to bend at the waist as well as an archery weapon that propels an arrow. Invalid can mean disabled as well as not acceptable. Clearly, if none of this stuff is learned and memorised, a new student of English will sound quite silly and be totally confused when attempting to use the language.

Then there are the double entendres – phrases and statements that can have two meanings. (Ponder the following examples slowly because they all have two meanings). ‘Princess Margaret School drop-outs cut in half.’Queen Elizabeth II having bottom scraped.’ ‘Donkey injures owner with cutliss.’ ‘Red tape holds up new bridge.’ ‘Antiguan judge set to rule on nude beach.’ ‘Organ festival ends in terrific climax.’ ‘Stolen painting found by tree.’ ‘New study of obesity in the Caribbean looks for bigger test group.’ ‘Thoroughbred mating fails – veterinarian takes over.’

Of course, some of the funniest and wittiest double entendres can be found in our calypsos. Calypso Franco insists “Ah go fork up the land/ Fork up fast, all behind dem grass.” He claims that pretty soon they will be calling him “King of cultivation!” Calypso Joe says that he “T’ink ah hear ah boom boom/ Leh me go Mama boom boom … Fire in she boom boom.” Sparrow claims that he “Never eat ah white meat yet!” and he says that Elaine complains to her mother that Harry, at times, “Is quite happy to light his wood-fire in the backyard.”

The Mighty Power declares that he will “Walk through thunder, lightning and rain to see that comedienne Tun Tun again.” Lord Shorty claims that Man For Kim and a number of other calypsonians claim that they are Going For King; others are Coming For Cup. And let’s not forget that golden oldie by Lord Nelson – Dove and Pigeon – a lovely double entendre on sound: “Dove start to sing coo coo coo coo, bansimanday/yeti yeti bansimanday … You must say oooohs aarh/And nobody must say oooohs aarh! Oooohs aarh oooohs aarh ooohs aarh!” For years as a boy, I thought that that song was about one thing, based on the amusing sound of the chorus. Turns out Nelson is simply singing about two birds eating pepper.

Interestingly, the Red Hot Flames sang a song called Raw Sole that is a classic calypso in the mould of the Mighty Sparrow. In it, they told the story of someone attempting to light a coal fire. Things apparently got out of control and the hot coals severely burned the soles of this person’s feet. Nevertheless, she was determined that, badly burned feet or not, she was going to enjoy carnival and have a rollicking time. In fact, the refrain, with its thumping baseline and giddy chant is a foot-stomper and waist-jerker in its own right and it captures the abandon and rapturous enthusiasm of the reveller: “Ah goin jump up in me @#$%hole, dance in me @#$%hole, kick up in me @#$%hole, Canaval in me @#$%hole!” It is one of the Flames’ best songs ever and a fantastic example of the double entendre Antiguan style.

Meanwhile, I have always wondered about the evolution of our dialect and, notwithstanding the fancy theories of linguists, I am convinced that our dialect was the result of resistance and convenience. You see, In order to keep the slaves in line and not allow them the ability to communicate freely, the planters made sure not to have too many slaves from the same tribe on any one plantation. Can you imagine if all the slaves on a particular plantation were all Yoruba or all Ibo? It would be bacchanal! Nevertheless, the slaves developed a way to communicate between themselves without the overseer understanding what was being said.

Thus, instead of saying, “Goodness gracious!” they might say, “Lawd! Ah wha yah!” Instead of saying “There, there!” as the planters would say, the slaves might say “Inna yuh Mutha @#%#.” Instead of saying “Give it to me”, they would say, “Gimme om”. Instead of saying “Somebody”, they would say “Smadie”. Instead of “Look here”, they would say “Coo yah.” And if, for argument sake, a slave witnessed Amadou getting a beating with a whip, he might whisper to Ngolye, the cook, “Pit inna e food” or “Piss inna e brebritch!” or “Put likkle doo doo inna e dookoonah!”

I submit, many planters spent many warm Antiguan nights with either their faces or their posteriors over the latrine. Oh yes, for many of the slaves, revenge was a dish best served “Wid sudden in dey!”

Now on the question of convenience, the slaves, and even us today, sometimes cannot be bothered with all the long highfalutin, convoluted manner of speaking as proscribed by the Queen’s English. We prefer to dispense with some of the pronouns and prepositions and ‘big words’ and simply get to the point. Instead of saying “By golly old chap, jolly good show!” we simply say “Dat dey irie!” Instead of saying “Please come here!” we simply say, “Coom ya!” and instead of “Let it go!” we say “Leggo!

Oh yes, and when we get angry, no matter how educated and ‘high society’ and pretentious we may be, or think we are, the dialect will slip out of our mouths. Yep. Instead of saying, “I am so very perplexed that I am contemplating striking you upside your cranium,” we will say, “Me tiff-tone bex and me feel fuh box-dong yuh @#$%!” Now, you tell me. Which one is more effective? The language as spoken on the River Thames or our vernacular? Oh, and try singing Obstinate’s Wet yuh han’ an’ wait fuh me in perfect English? It sounds ridiculous! Point made.

Nonetheless, there are some folks who insist on ‘speaking, spiking and spoking.’ They love to impress with a whole bunch of ‘big words’. And more often than not, they are using the words incorrectly. Heck, they even invent words. Look at Sparrow’s wife in Christmas Moppers. She chides him by declaring: “Poompoomically speaking you’re a pussyistic man/Most elaquitably full of shitification? Your splendiferous views are too catastical/Too contimoratic and too pushyistical.”

Good grief! This language direckly fetch-up! Please pass the egg nog and have a blessed Christmas! Me lub aryou whole ton!!!