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’.”
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.
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
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.
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 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.