Voting In English

Errol Miller

Professor Errol Miller, chairman of the Electoral Commission of Jamaica (ECJ), made an alarming statement in his broadcast to the nation last Wednesday. Speaking to election-day workers, the goodly professor issued guidelines that included the following: “Use Standard English in addressing each elector. English is the official language of the country and election day is an official event and occasion.”

Who authorised Errol Miller to make this discriminatory pronouncement? Surely, there is no law that legislates the language of elections! Professor Miller’s ill-considered declaration appears to be nothing more (or less) than class prejudice – a vulgar attempt to impose standards of correctness arbitrarily.

Under pressure, Professor Miller came up with an intriguing argument in defence of the guideline: “What we have found in reviewing practice is that some people resented being addressed in the dialect to start off with because someone just looks at them and addresses them in the dialect and another person comes and they address them in English, they resented that, they charged people with speaking down to them, so we just said, ‘Give everybody the same treatment and we have done that in every election since’.”

Polling tent, Portmore

Since electors can enter the polling station only one at a time, I don’t how they would know who is being addressed in English and who in ‘dialect’. Electors could only know for sure how he/she is addressed.   Admittedly, in some instances, open air polling stations do, in fact, compromise the principle of privacy.  All the same, if resentment at being addressed in ‘dialect’ was the real reason for the guideline, this is what the professor should have said: “Use Standard English in addressing each elector. Don’t judge an individual’s competence in English based on how he/she looks.”

But, of course, that is not the whole story. When the professor goes on to say that English is the official language and election day an official event, he is actually affirming the absolute authority of English as the sole language of official communication. He does not allow any space for the official use of ‘dialect’. The mother tongue of the vast majority of Jamaicans has no place in the public sphere.

Living in the past

Quite frankly, I think Errol Miller is living in the past. There was a time when many Jamaicans were quite ashamed of speaking ‘dialect’. They had been taught that English was the exclusive language of upward social mobility and ‘dialect’ a sign of congenital inferiority. That’s the legacy of colonialism: mental slavery.

Louise Bennett

But, over time, attitudes have slowly changed. As a society, we have become more comfortable with accepting our own culture, including the language – not ‘dialect’ – that we have collectively created. Louise Bennett, Jamaica’s premier language activist, has helped us to acknowledge the value and power of our distinctive Jamaican language.

In several of her poems, Miss Lou does explore the anxiety about language that still afflicts some of us. In ‘No Lickle Twang’, a mother laments the fact that her son who spent all of six months in the United States has come back home without an accent:

“Bwoy, yuh no shame? Is so yuh come?

After yuh tan so long!

Not even lickle language, bwoy?

Not even lickle twang?”

 

The young man’s failings are measured against his sister’s remarkable success:

“An yuh sister what work ongle

One week wid Merican

She talk so nice now dat we have

De jooce fi understan.”

Miss Lou makes fun of the mother who doesn’t seem to mind the fact that she has a hard time understanding her daughter. All that matters is that the daughter ‘talk so nice’. Language is no longer a means of communication. It becomes a decoration that the speaker can brandish like jewellery.

Victory over Baby Bruce

Election day workers, Kingston

When I went to vote on Thursday, I made it my business to speak in Jamaican. And my election worker readily responded in the same language, completely ignoring Professor Miller’s guideline. The chairman of the ECJ seems to have assumed that no elector would ever come to the polling station wanting to speak a language other than English. He’s wrong.

Furthermore, the pernicious guideline is based on the assumption that all Jamaicans are competent in English. But this is not so. Professor Miller’s insistence on the use of English clearly discriminates against speakers of Jamaican. What the guideline should have said, if any thing, is ‘respond to electors in the language they use’. End of story. That’s common sense. Any intelligent election-day worker would know that. He/she doesn’t need an officious guideline.

Portia Simpson Miller

Professor Miller’s stubborn defence of his guideline betrays the same kind of arrogance at the core of the demeaning G2K ads that portrayed Portia Simpson Miller as a bumbling idiot. What G2K did not take into account is the fact that Sista P is a powerful symbol of what working-class people can achieve with determination and ‘whole heap’ of hard work. Every attack on Portia Simpson Miller was taken personally by working-class people who constitute the majority of voters.

And, as Sista P demonstrated so coolly in the ‘disappointing’ debate with Andrew Holness, she can, most certainly, hold her own where and when it matters. The debate was ‘anti-climactic’ only for those foolish people who expected Sista P to fall flat on her face. She beat Holness in the debate, and this was a clear sign of things to come. Despite all the mockery, Sista P led her party to a resounding victory over Baby Bruce.

Andrew Holness in defeat

Andrew Holness was just not ready for prime time. The main plank of his campaign was that he is young. But is that enough? He was supposed to be the fresh new face of the JLP. Baby Bruce tried to position himself “on the extreme periphery” of the Dudus-Manatt imbroglio. Nobody was fooled. Working-class Jamaicans may not be fully competent in English. But they can certainly spot a ‘samfie’ man in any language.

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5 thoughts on “Voting In English

  1. In addition to reading your blog, Mr. Miller might want to read some Brathwaite too: “Dialect is thought of as ‘bad English.’ Dialect is ‘inferior English.’ Dialect is the language when you want to make fun of someone.”

  2. I worked for the last elections in St. Lucia as a polling clerk and there I saw how necessary it is to use Kwéyòl in addressing some of the electors. We would first ask the elector whether they preferred the instructions delivered to them in English or Kwéyòl and then proceeded.This brings up another issue i.e the competence of election workers in the language. As part of our training there was no test of our competence to serve the electors in both languages and no effort to provide some training at least relevant even to just the sphere of elections. Further, there were voters coming in who had to have persons vote on their behalf and had to repeat oaths written in English and sometimes language which is not even common speech which I am sure many did not understand. That too needs to be made officially available in English and be required of polling officers to deliver where necessary. And of course for Prof. Miller’s concern about people’s perception of the language that is a wider issue within the society of persons being better informed and should not preclude the electoral department from their responsibility of doing what is necessary to better serve our attempts at democracy by addressing the language issue in that context.

  3. You raised some interesting issues in this blog. Language is indeed a powerful tool that connects to people to one another, their history and culture. I have the view that Jamaican Creole/Patois/ Patwah/ Dialect, (how ever one wants to categorise it) is a beautiful expressive and ingenious language, it is a mark of strength and identity. I was born, schooled, and raised in England, my parents, grandparents, aunts uncles were born in Jamaica. My family speak Patois at home and with the Jamaican community- it connects them and reminds them of home (Jamaica)…
    I’m not sure if you are aware of an English Historian and broadcaster David Starky and his comments made last year on BBC’s political commentary TV programme Newsnight. He was asked what he thought ignited the London uprisings and this was his response… ‘The whites have become black. A particular sort of violent, destructive, nihilistic, gangster culture has become the fashion. And black and white, boy and girl, operate in this language together, this language which is wholly false, which is this Jamaican patois that’s been intruded in England, and this is why so many of us have this sense of literally a foreign country.’ Full interview can be viewed via this link http://youtu.be/gU5TcTSa9kk. As you can imagine his comments enraged the Jamaican community over here.
    Visit any major city in England and you will hear youths using Jamaican Patois as a ‘cool’ way to communicate with t heir peers- but i do not think that is the cause o the UK uprisings last year (i would have to address that at another time!)
    I’m a documentary maker and am currently in the process of producing a documentary entitled ‘Jamlish’ (working title). I plan for this documentary to unearth how the language was created, the root cause to the social conflict between the rich and poor communities in Jamaica and how the language has become so popular in British youth culture.

    I should hopefully be returning the Jamaica later this year to film parts of this project. I would love the chance to meet up with you and discuss this topic.

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