Wednesday 14 September 2011


In reaction to David Starkey’s egregious comments about last month’s rioting in London, Hubert Devonish, professor of linguistics at the University of the West Indies in Mona and Coordinator of the Jamaican Language Unit, wrote an interesting piece, Of riot and Rastamouse, that appeared first as a blog and then as an article in Jamaica’s leading newspaper, the Gleaner.

Rastamouse is a popular British children’s animated cartoon, featuring a cast of problem-solving mice musicians who play reggae and wear appropriate clothing and talk in an appropriately Jamaican way.

If you’ve never seen Rastamouse (perhaps because you’re not an under-10 in the UK), try this sample.

I say the characters “talk in an appropriately Jamaican way”. This covers not only accent (pronunciation) but also elements of Jamaican Creole grammar, e.g. the use of me as a subject pronoun. To a British ear they certainly sound Jamaican. But there are two interesting points to be made:

They don’t have the Multicultural London English we discussed recently. They sound definitely Caribbean.

Prof. Devonish mentions “the heavy anglicisation of the Jamaican Patois spoken by the characters”. So their language is what has been called “London Jamaican”, characteristically spoken by those of Jamaican birth or heritage who have lived for many years, or all their lives, in London.

And yet… It turns out that none of the principal actors who do the voices in the cartoon were born in Jamaica. They are native Londoners. The lead character is played by the voice actor Reggie Yates, who is actually not of Caribbean but of of Ghanaian descent.

And why not? I think his accent, even if it might not convince Jamaicans, is entirely appropriate for this cartoon mouse.


  1. Gone are the days when even the TV puppets all spoke 'posh'.

  2. Well, I wonder a bit about that sweeping statement of mine, actually. Did they really all speak posh? I'm not a children's TV expert, but at least the narrators spoke posh, didn't they?

  3. In the days when TV (and radio) broadcasters spoke really posh, the puppets didn't speak at all, from what I can remember. There may have been speakers, but what I remember is Muffin the Mule — who never made a sound, Sooty — who squeaked — and the Flowerpot Men — who said flubbberlub.

    Even in the earlier era of the BBC, fictional characters were allowed to have non-RP accents if they were one or more of the following:
    • comic
    • villainous
    • a plucky, salt-of-the-earth sidekick

  4. Judging from the clip, it's quite charming. It should be easily comprehensible to a child or adult with little or no familiarity with Jamaican Creole. But at the same time it's quite bold I think, using a high mesolect JC rather than Jamaican Standard English.

    It should give children a basic introduction to the sound patterns and basic grammar of JC, although the vocabulary is mostly standard English.

    You can tell the voice actors are not native JC speakers though, from little slips like ain't, which I think is unknown in Jamaica.

  5. If you want to hear a really bumbling "posh" accent today, listen to Mr Jones in a Little Red Tractor episode.

  6. @ Paul Carley: Sooty might not have spoken much, but Harry Corbett (the original puppeteer) did not have a posh accent. He could sound quite Yorkshire at times. He was on the BBC during the 1950s and 1960s.

  7. Basil Brush, now he was dead posh.

  8. Just listened to a sample on YouTube, and it sounds like folksy "EE" with an very front /e/ and an apical r, hypercorrectly in all positions.

  9. Are David Starkey's idiotic comments any less 'egregious' than making a post called a gay accent? which facetiously reasoned against comparing Californians to gays while curiously tolerating spam and a sea of trolls indulging in schoolyard jokes against gays rather than having an honest, intelligent discussion on racism, sexuality and homophobia?

  10. @ Glen Gordon: The world doesn't revolve around you. There are hundreds of sites on the internet for discussing racism, sexuality and homophobia. Why don't you go there instead of spamming a phonetic blog that has always been tolerant of users' comments?

  11. That's nonsense. If John Wells were honestly concerned with spam or moderation, he would have implemented a policy by now like any sensible academic would.

    And how is this a serious phonetics blog when the entries have nothing material to say on phonetics? An odd assessment of yours, don't you think?

  12. @ Glen:
    Oh that's nonsense Glenny -you never talk anything but nonsense.

    Now you answer:
    Nobody ever does!

    (And don't you call me spam or I'll spam you!!)

  13. By the way, what's wrong with racism? I adore blondes (That's why I study English).

    No, please Glenny, I didn't really mean it, it was only a joke... AAAAARGH!!!

  14. Glen - Believe me, I do my best to remove spam comments as and when they appear. "Makeup artist in Sidney" was added yesterday, to a blog posting from July, and I have tagged it as spam to remove it today. (Really, I've better things to do than to police old blog postings all day.)
    If you find my blog 'glib and superficial', don't read it.

  15. @Glen: Are David Starkey's idiotic comments any less 'egregious' than making a post called a gay accent?

    You're right, they're no less egregious - they're far more egregious!

    David Starkey was a guest on Newsnight who came out with a torrent of ignorant bile that identified blackness with criminality and whiteness with respectability (by calling David Lammy "white" and the white rioters "black").

    He also essentially blamed the riots on MLE (or "Jamaican Patois" as he called it). How you can compare that to John's well-meant and scholarly discussion of gay men's speech is beyond me.

  16. As the Poles say:

    Krowa, która dużo ryczy, mało mleka daje

    A cow which moos a lot gives little milk

    Nuff said.

  17. I am from today at the Babes Balyai University Faculty of Letters from Cluj Napoca, Master: Contemporaneous Directions in Linguistics.

  18. Curious statements, indeed.

    Pete: When John Wells does nothing to stop homophobic attacks against other commenters on his own blog, while simultaneously participating in the It gets better project (an important project against among other things **homophobic cyberbullying**!), it sadly suggests his grave hypocrisy and empty self-promotion. Much like David Starkey.

    Paul Carley: "A cow which moos a lot gives little milk" is a great communist, anti-free-speech jingle to malign people who speak out against prejudice but it fails as a principle of logic.

    It could equally be applied to a man that participates in various projects he doesn't believe in like the It Gets Better project or his own blog.

    Beatrice Portinari: You've been dead for 720 years. So it's curious that you felt the need to rise from the grave to defend John Wells. ;o) Go back to the crypt and hush up lest people start thinking Mr Wells invents his own sockpuppets to troll his own commentbox and bully people.

    John Wells: Creating a blog is a responsibility you set on yourself. Is it sensible to whine about the work it takes to maintain it rather than either finally taking up that challenge or abandoning it?

  19. @ Glenn: Sorry I was a bit unkind, I don't know when to stop when I feel naughty. But you have to admit that you are not an angel either -It is not very polite to reveal a lady's age!
    If you want me to prove my physical existence I can send you a photo, but I warn you: I am very ugly.
    (If only Mr Wells needed my defending him!)

  20. Would it be more correct to say "...when I'm feeling naughty" than "...when I feel naughty" (in my previous comment, I mean)?

  21. Beatrice

    Would it be more correct to say "...when I'm feeling naughty" than "...when I feel naughty"

    'Correct' is not a word I would use here, but I do think it would be more natural.

    For me, the use of PRESENT SIMPLE twice (I don't know ... when I feel) suggests two OCCASIONS which repeatedly concise:

    OCCASION ONE: I feel naughty
    OCCASION TWO: The knowledge (ability to judge) of when to stop escapes me

    I would feel happily with a different sense of the PRESENT SIMPLE don't know — a timeless STATE of mind. Thus:
    • The 'not knowing' has a limitless time frame.
    • The elusive judgement to stop fails to occur on multiple occasions within that time period
    • What characterises those occasions is the TEMPORARY STATE of feeling naughty

    The appropriate finite verb forms for TEMPORARY STATE are PROGRESSIVE. In this instance the form must be PRESENT because the instances of that state fall within the TIMELESS PRESENT framework of don't know.

    I prefer this combination because it suggests a repeated succession of TEMPORARY STATES within a TIMELESS PERMANENT STATE. That isn't to say that when I feel naughty is incorrect, but I like it less. The PRESENT SIMPLE is appropriate when the conjunction means much the same as whenever or if . For example:

    I put that shocking dress on it whenever I feel naughty
    I put that shocking dress on if I feel naughty

    Even here I could use I'm feeling. The PRESENT SIMPLE (for me) suggests 'every time the feeling comes over me'.

    If it helps, think of the song When I'm Cleaning Windows (click):

    I go window cleaning to earn an honest bob.
    For a nosey parker it's an interesting job
    Now it's a job that just suits me. A window cleaner you would be
    If you could see what I can see
    When I'm cleaning windows.

  22. @David Crosbie: what does the verb 'concise' in your second sentence mean?

  23. The example from the song is a very nice and clear example to show the difference in principle, but "feel" doesn't (necessarily) work the same way as most verbs, does it?

    I'm sure Maria isn't singing about a general stance in life but rather about, and I quote, tonight, when she sings "I feel pretty."

    (Today, especially in America, everything is seeming to be being in the present progressive and she'd easily sing "I'm feeling pretty". And George Formby would sing "If you could see what I'm seeing when I'm cleaning windows." Maybe even "if you could be seeing".)

  24. Thanks a lot David. I have the impression that progressive forms are more extensively used in English than in Spanish, so that when we Spaniards are not being (this previous progressive form would be un-Spanish) very careful when we are speaking (and this would be interchangeable with a non-progressive form) English, we tend to say for example: "I'll have a drink while I wait" instead of "...while I'm waiting". (Sorry about the mess.)
    @ Lipman: I'll be keeping that in mind!

  25. Spaniards = native Spanish speakers (I can't get rid of my imperialist nostalgia.)

  26. Steve

    what does the verb 'concise' in your second sentence mean?

    Ask my spellchecker. The new Mac OS Lion not only offers 'correct' spellings, but actually substitutes them if you don't tell it not to. What I tried to type was:

    For me, the use of PRESENT SIMPLE twice (I don't know ... when I feel) suggests two OCCASIONS which repeatedly coincide:

    I must have typed something like concide.

  27. Lipman

    Subordination makes all the difference. Consider:

    You can always tell when Maria's feeling pretty.

    When I use PRESENT SIMPLE feel I specifically do NOT consider it temporary. Maria doesn't expect to turn into an ugly sister at midnight. Even if I say I feel sick I have no sense of recovery in mind.

    In a subordinate when clause, if the main clause represents a recurring event/situation, then the state of 'feeling' is by definition temporary. It lasts for the duration one instance of the main clause situation, then reoccurs temporarily on each subsequent instance.

    I think this hold generally provided that:
    feel represents a continuous state (e.g. NOT 'begin to feel')
    feel is in a when clause
    — the when clause follows the main clause


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