indexRabbie Burns, Elephant Man, Sheena Easton, Bob Marley, Louise Bennett an Liz Lochead walk intae a pub in Dunfermline…

The rammys aboot the Scots edition o The National an Stephen Daisley loupin on a few typos on the Scottish Government website got me thinkin aboot the power o language in Scotland an Jamaica. Ah try tae no get too involved in the argument aboot whether Scots is a ‘real language’ cos as far as Ah’m concerned that’s maistly settled by linguists an, much mair importantly, it’s spoken by maist o the folk Ah ken, so there’s nae point in gettin riled up aboot it an chokin on ma (newly politicised) Tunnocks teacake. Scots is as real as it gets.
Ah’m a Fifer, but Ah lived in Jamaica for aboot three an a half years, an ma wife’s Jamaican. We baith came hame tae live in Scotland in 2014. Nane o this maks me an expert in Scots, in Jamaican Patois, or in the relationships between language, culture an identity, but it might gie me a different angle on things.

Ah dinnae ken every Scots word an Ah dinnae speak the same Scots as ma grandfather spoke. Whether it’s ‘diluted’ or ‘enriched’ by different influences is a matter o debate, but it survived gettin throttled by ma school an it’s intelligible tae maist folk Ah meet in Scotland, so for me it’s alive an valid an Ah’ve a right tae speak it an tae write it. Ma wife’s ‘proper’ English is better than mine, but she also speaks Jamaican Patois, which has Scottish, Irish, English an African words an phrases in it, as well as a hypnotic lilting cadence that is distinctly Celtic. At hame, Ah try tae speak as much Patois as Ah can tae her because Ah ken she enjoys me makin the effort, ah ken she misses hame an Ah believe that her Patois is closely tied up wi the things an folk that are dearest tae her hairt. When Ah wis in Jamaica, Ah’d often hear someone on the telly in another room, an cos Ah couldnae distinguish the words, the accent sounded Scottish. Til Ah got used tae it, Ah’d run ben the room only tae discover that it was a news report fae Clarendon an no Coatbridge. Maist Jamaicans thought Ah wis Russian or German at first, an lots o them didnae immediately recognise that Ah wis talkin a language that was in any way similar tae theirs, despite the fact that they definitely kent that ‘many a mickle maks a muckle’ and said ‘gie him it’ much mair than ‘give him it’.

There are similarities in the way chattin Patois in Jamaica an spraffin Scots in Scotland are regarded by the high heidyins though. Although every real Jamaican kens Patois, in the main it’s discouraged in the classroom an is definitely no preferred by maist ‘uptown’ Jamaicans. As an aside, Ah cannae ignore the part ma forefathers played in engenderin this snobbery, or the painfully divisive legacy of British Imperial brutality that sowed the seeds o much o the divisions that persist in Jamaica. An although the majority o Scots arrived in Jamaica after the Darien debacle an post 1707, an can therefore perhaps be conveniently regarded by some as British at that point, that disnae get us off the hook. Maist Scots were violent an opportunistic in Jamaica, Scotland’s coffers got fat off the blood o slavery, an we filled oor boots over there tae such an extent that there are mair Scottish surnames per heid o population in Jamaica than anywhere else in the world. This permanent link is consanguineous, but wisnae consensual. There’s a great group called Flag Up Scotland Jamaica that are tryin tae get the Scottish Government tae recognise the historical and cultural links between these two Saltire nations an mak Jamaica a priority country by the bye: have a gander at their website here :

One way Scots an Patois differ is that Patios has developed tae a stage noo where, in its spoken form, it’s jist aboot standardised. There are wee dialectal differences but no tae the same extent that we have in Scotland. If ye compare Patois tae Standard English there’s a bigger difference than when ye compare the Scots spoken by maist folk in Scotland tae Standard English. Along wi elements o Jamaican music, Patois has also been a vehicle for preservin African words, phrases, traditions an folklore. In this way, it has moved fae a language o liminality tae one o resistance an unity.

It’s also worth mindin that resistance (as rebellion) in the Jamaican consciousness is no as far removed in time an space as it is here in Scotland: next time ye go tae Jamaica go up tae Accompong an ye can talk tae descendants o the Maroons; rebel slaves who fought a successful guerrilla war against British Empire forces an still bide in an independent enclave tae this day. If ye’re doubtful, ye can volunteer tae try collectin taxes in Accompong: ye’d bolt doon the hill as quick as the Redcoats did when they saw the machetes flash in the sunlight. Can ye imagine descendants o William Wallace’s armies still occupyin an independent stronghold somewhere in the hairt o Scotland? ‘Braveheart’ might never hae seen the light o day.

Jamaican bairns are taught aboot Miss Lou (Louise Bennett) in school mind you. Her well-kent poems an performances in Patois offer a controlled demolition of linguistic an cultural snobbery, as an excerpt fae ‘Bans a Killin’ shows:

Dah language weh yuh proud a,
Weh yuh honour an respec –
Po Mas Charlie, yuh no know se
Dat it spring from dialec!
Dat dem start fi try tun language
From de fourteen century –
Five hundred years gawn an dem got
More dialec dan we!
Yuh wi haffi kill de Lancashire,
De Yorkshire, de Cockney,
De broad Scotch and de Irish brogue
Before yuh start kill me!
Yuh wi haffi get de Oxford Book
A English Verse, an tear
Out Chaucer, Burns, Lady Grizelle
An plenty a Shakespeare!
When yuh done kill ‘wit’ an ‘humour’,
When yuh kill ‘variety’,
Yuh wi haffi fine a way fi kill

This is echoed in the sentiment o Liz Lochead’s bairnsang:

…to the place I’d learn to forget to say
it wis January
and a gey dreich day
the first day Ah went to the school
so my Mum happed me up in ma
good navy-blue napp coat wi the rid tartan hood,
birled a scarf aroon ma neck,
pu’ed oan ma pixie an’ ma pawkies
it wis that bitter.
Oh saying it was one thing
but when it came to writing it
in black and white
the way it had to be said
was as if you were posh, grown-up, male, English and dead

Miss Lou is a bit o a Burnsian figure in Jamaica but although she wis a bonnie fechter for her culture in many ways, she’s no regarded as dangerous by the Establishment. Bob Marley, who translated domestic and geopolitical politricks intae Patois for a population that was (conveniently for those in power) maistly illiterate, was certainly dangerous. His maist militant, international and influential anthems mixed and switched codes in the same way as those o Burns, and this allowed him tae speak truth tae power, no jist tae the man in the street. If ye want tae ken jist how dangerous he became, ye can dae nae better than read A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James; it’ll blow yer heid right aff. A prophet is never welcome in his ain land, an that’s true for Bob; he has never been gien National Hero status in Jamaica, no that Ah expect he’d care a jot. He wis a real living threat tae the system o privilege in Jamaica at a time when it was also a second front for the Cold War. If ye go on a package holiday tae Jamaica an dinnae venture beyond the chain fence o the hotel compound, the nearest ye’ll get tae this genuine power is a cheap plastic keyring o a Rastaman smokin an oversized spliff or some bland mainstream reggae performed at a variety show by the entertainment staff. Ye’ll hear ‘no problem mon’ an ‘Irie mon’ aplenty in they places, cos laidback Jamaica is what maist tourists expect. Ye’ll no hear much real patois spoken and ye’ll leave nane the wiser. In this environment rebellion is reduced, packaged, controlled and sold. Limited use of Patois is tolerated as a commercial tool, but no as the language o rebellion or cultural expression. In Scotland, Scots is only tolerated by the mainstream media as long as it’s couthy, cute, an associated wi Kailyardism an tartanry. If it’s accepted an respected as a livin leid, the folk that talk it have tae be respected an accepted as valid an equal: that’s a step too far for folk whose existence an livelihood is dependent on an unchallenged sense o entitlement an superiority.

Nooadays, the influences o American language an culture in Jamaica is stronger than the same influences fae these Isles. So, while in the past an ordinary Jamaican might hae laughed at a neighbour affecting upper class English Received Pronunciation, it’s mair likely noo that they’ll crease themselves at a neighbour newly returned fae America who’s started ‘twanging’. Ah was laughin at this wi ma wife the other day when we were watchin an interview wi the dancehall artist Elephant Man, whose Jamaican accent seemed tae hae got lost somewhere on the way back fae Miami, only tae be replaced by a weird American drawl. This minded me o listenin tae Sheena Easton gettin interviewed on telly in the 80s. Maist Jamaicans would regard twanging in a similar way tae Scottish folk listenin tae Easton; they’re no the genuine article an they’re no the fu shillin.

Modern Jamaican music maks full use o Patois, although the same code-switchin an code-mixin Marley used is also common. Folk still listen tae it all over the world though, it transcends barriers, an folk as far away as Japan are interested enough in the culture tae find oot what the mair unfamiliar Patois words mean. Local is international, an national is parochial, as Tom Leonard says: makin the effort tae learn the languages of the majority folk o other cultures gies ye a unique insight intae that culture, an one that isnae filtered through the twisted kaleidoscope o mainstream media. It taks effort, but preservin yer ain leid can be empowerin ootside yer ain borders as well as inside them.

Havin the front page o the National in Scots this January was brilliant, but it scunnered me how negatively it was received in some quarters and how quickly something sae innocuous was regarded as threatenin. Ye’ll no see many front pages in Patois in Jamaica, an the broadsheets will mainly eschew it for Standard English, but Ah used tae love readin Ragashanti’s agony uncle column in raw Patois in the Daily Star. What would be ‘wrong’ wi printin mair articles in Scots aboot any subject? Maist articles in Scots are still aboot Scots; we need tae start printin articles in Scots aboot anythin, after all, we use it tae talk aboot anythin! It looks unfamiliar written doon in black an white, but that awkwardness will fade in time.
The resurgence o the Scots leid has coincided wi the development o a mair conscious, informed an confident electorate an a Scotland that is askin itsel some tricky questions. This has been fuelled in part by the Independence movement, but of course that disnae mean that Scots is the preserve o Nationalists any mair than English is the preserve o Unionists. Scots belongs tae us aw. But it’s oors an it’s precious. It’s somethin tae be treasured. If it’s ‘wrong’ or ‘inferior’ or ‘bastardised’ then by default we are tae. When a language is belittled, invalidated an held in disdain so are its speakers. This insidious form o social engineerin has tae be challenged. Ye dinnae tell bairns that the way they talk aboot the folk they love is ‘wrong’. Teach them standard English aye, but let them keep an develop their Scots tae.

The mainstream media’s erses squeak aboot Scots because its existence an acceptance is a challenge tae their increasingly precarious positions. They’re biscuit-ersed an their coats are on shoogly pegs. In years tae come bairns will express themsels confidently, fluently, powerfully an persuasively in Scots an in Standard English, an the world will want tae hear what they’re sayin. Deniers like Daisley are livin in a parallel universe an will soon disappear up their ain jacksies.

We should feel sorry for the cringers and self-loathers rather than bein angry at them though; they’re hingin tae the tattered remnants o decayin privilege while the rest o us are busy spraffin aboot the fairer, mair equal an respectful Scotland that’s in oor grasp. Through livin an lovin oor leid we naturally mak daily declarations o dignity, self-respect and independence o mind. That sounds guid tae me.