Monday, 5 March 2012

Bajans

On Saturday morning I was at the supermarket doing my weekly shop. I had just picked up a pack of kitchen towels and put them in my shopping trolley when my attention was caught by a woman pointing out to her husband that there was a special offer on a brand I had not chosen which made them a much better bargain than the ones I had taken. So I put mine back, picked her brand instead and briefly joined in their conversation.

They hadn’t uttered more than two or three phrases, but from their speech I could tell that they were from Barbados. So I boldly said, “You’re Bajans, aren’t you?”. Yes, she replied, we are: how did you know, have you been to Barbados? And we had a brief chat about the attractions of their native island.

It would be possible at this point for me to start listing the characteristics of Barbadian English that make it sound different from other Caribbean varieties: the rhoticity, the raised PRICE vowel ʌi ~ əi, the glottal stops, the unusual rhythm. But my recognizing the accent was not a matter of taking note of each of these characteristics in turn and computing the implications. Rather, it was intuitive recognition of a gestalt, a complete unanalysed pattern of sounds. I think this is how we typically recognize accents we’re familiar with.

If you’d like to listen to sound clips of Bajan please consult the comments made on my blog entry of 23 Aug 2010, particularly those by Amy Stoller, who supplied an extensive list. (Thanks!)

As well as being the fiftieth anniversary of my MA thesis (blog, Friday), this month also sees the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of my three-volume Accents of English. You will not be surprised to know that I did not write this work by systematically starting at the beginning and working through chapter by chapter until I reached the end. Rather, I jumped around doing something here, something there, as opportunity provided. And my short section on Barbados was one of the first I drafted.

The stimulus for this was our being invited to dinner by a couple we knew in London, one of whom was Bajan, and spending the evening with them. This would have been in the early seventies. I don’t think I was quite so rude as to make notes as we were talking, but as soon as I was on my own I certainly hastened to write down my phonetic impressions of his speech. The next day I wrote them up, and gave my essay to Doc O’Connor, my supervisor for the PhD on Jamaican I had recently completed, for his comments.

At that time I had never visited Barbados. But in January 1978 I was able to spend a few days there on the way back from my first visit to Montserrat, after which I revised and extended what became section 7.2.4, Barbados, of my book.

11 comments:

  1. I love that visceral reaction one has to really familiar accents/dialects. The accent I grew up around (West Sussex coast) isn't particularly distinct in many ways, but if I hear an (especially older) speaker from that region, especially now that I don't live in the area anymore, I can peg them from across the room. Or even across the field.

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  2. Sometimes the "gestalt" impression is almost impossible to decompose into concrete facts. Take Michael Gove, for instance. Somehow you can tell he's Scottish, even without being able to point to a specifically Scottish vowel.

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  3. I think two important factors are the intonation and the basis of articulation.

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  4. I really don't know if the first Vol of "Accents of English" went through a proofreading process. I'm at page 125, and found 7 mistakes. These mistakes would have been easily spotted if your work was proofread.

    The problem is that you don't want to hear from me as I once sent you one of those mistakes but you didn't reply to my email. I don't know why. If you wanted, I can send them to you.

    Thanks a lot.

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    1. If my wife's experience of correcting Russian is anything to go by, John probably corrected all seven of those mistakes. Either that or he proof-read a text in which those mistakes had not yet appeared.

      It would seem that new printing technology is in some ways too flexible.

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    2. From my experience _qua_ an author using various 'funny' scripts and characters in his manuscripts ('funny': for instance Ancient Greek or elementary mathematical expressions... this funny) I must sadly agree with David. Plus: some proofreaders have understandably and pardonably not the exact assortment of skills and knowledge required to proofread your text, and they, unlike Socrates, do not know the limits of their own knowledge.

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    3. It was of course very carefully proof-read, not least by me. But in those days we were using hot-metal technology, and despite excellent compositors and readers a small number of mistakes still got through.

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    4. Apropos David's comments on proofreading in an electronic age, see my blog for 5 May 2006.

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  5. In his blog of 9/12/11 Graham Pointon says:

    I’m delighted that John is bringing out a new edition of Accents of English. Thirty years between editions is far too long!

    A new edition? Is that right?

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    1. No, it isn't. I don't know where Graham got that idea from -- certainly not from me.

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