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What language is this?

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Hint: it's one that you know.

Well, some might argue that you probably don't know it, because basilectal Jamaican Creole English is not mutually intelligible with the kinds of English that you probably do know.

And according to the discussion at Steve Cotler's Irrepressibly True Tales ("Draw Your Brakes–A Jamaican Creole Shout"), even Peter Patrick, who grew up in Jamaica and who has studied Jamaican Creole for years, didn't know what these two phrases meant. He had to consult with Kenneth Bilby, who knew the answer only because he'd asked Bunny Brown, a friend of the (deceased) speaker, David Scott, who explained a couple of crucial bits of 1970s Jamaican slang.

The study of creole languages led in the 1960s to the concept of the "creole continuum", describing the spectrum of forms between a standard language and a local variety which (in the absence of the intermediate forms) would clearly be a separate language.

Something very similar happens in cases where the rest of the "creole language" package is nowhere in sight. Thus in Italian- or German-speaking parts of Europe, people may use a spectrum of mixtures between the standard national language and a local variety, which may be different enough that speakers from another region would be unable to understand it in a pure form. And I'm told that the same sort of thing happens with mixtures of fuṣḥā (Modern Standard Arabic) and various regional/social colloquial varieties.

The usual term for these non-creole cases is "code-switching", which implies a process where the message is sometimes in one variety and sometimes in another, in contrast to the term "creole continuum", which suggests a spectrum of intermediate varieties. However, I'm skeptical that there's actually any systematic difference between what happens in Jamaica or Haiti and what happens in Stuttgart or Tunis.

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21 Comments »

  1. language hat said,

    September 3, 2009 @ 8:41 am

    Thanks for this post; I've been wondering about that phrase for thirty years. The Harder They Come is one of my all-time favorite albums.

  2. Peter Taylor said,

    September 3, 2009 @ 9:15 am

    Any chance of a transcription?

  3. Peter Taylor said,

    September 3, 2009 @ 9:24 am

    Ah, never mind. One of the linked pages has it:
    Forward and payaaka, manhangle and den go saaka.

  4. bulbul said,

    September 3, 2009 @ 9:26 am

    The usual term for these non-creole cases is "code-switching"
    See, that one always bothered me: the situations you mention are classic examples of diglossia – two different varieties of one single language (I know, I know…) existing side by side fulfilling different functions. Then there are situations where one person employs two mutually unintelligible languages, where we also speak of "code-switching". But is it really the same thing?

  5. Karen said,

    September 3, 2009 @ 9:26 am

    @Peter: follow the link for the translation (and more!)

  6. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    September 3, 2009 @ 10:18 am

    Now that we've looked into "Ma ma se, ma ma sa, ma ma coo sa" and this one, what's the next impenetrable pop lyric/chant we should tackle?

    [(myl) Don't forget our scholarly exegesis of "the pompatus of love". ]

  7. jubin said,

    September 3, 2009 @ 10:33 am

    My family is from Iranian Kurdistan, and we actually have a triple case of code switching: in all official contexts and around other Iranians we speak Farsi, around other Kurds we speak Kurdish, and amongst ourselves we speak Pelewani, a crude explanation of which would be a broad mix of Farsi and Kurdish.

  8. KCinDC said,

    September 3, 2009 @ 10:46 am

    Benjamin, how about "goo goo g'joob"? Is it the same as "coo coo ca-choo"?

  9. John Cowan said,

    September 3, 2009 @ 10:55 am

    (Stretching the comments policy a bit….)

    Diglossia is a structural relationship between two language varieties, whereas code-switching is a type of performance. One may function in a diglossic situation with H and L varieties without doing any code switching at all, speaking straight H on the job and straight L at home, for example.

    I don't think it's any longer necessary, though, to confine the term diglossia to the situation where the H and L varieties are close genetic relatives. In Austrian Carinthia, for example, Austrian German and the local variety of Slovene function as an H/L diglossic pair, despite both being Abstandsprache.

  10. J. W. Brewer said,

    September 3, 2009 @ 11:27 am

    It's not clear to me from the explanation what percentage of Jamaican fluent native speakers of Patois would have understood this at the time (i.e., how obscure versus broadly known the three key slang terms were at the time or subsequently became). One could have been a fluent native speaker of American English and even its Southern California regional variety and not have fully understood Moon Unit Zappa's famous disquisition in "Valley Girl" on first hearing.

    But I think I'm one of a non-trivial number of erstwhile white suburban U.S. teenagers of my generation who at one point developed a decent passive competence in the variety of English in which reggae songs are typically sung (where you often have some distinctive Rastafarian lexical/morphosyntactic things happening in addition to being varying distances along the Creole Continuum and of course a different accent even at the Standard English end of that continuum) out of interest and repeated listening exposure, but with little or no personal interaction with native speakers of the variety. I doubt we could have consistently produced our own syntactically well-formed sentences in the variety, but that's a different sort of competence it was not necessary to acquire for listening enjoyment and understanding.

    I think this is actually a reasonably good parallel / indirect proof of the claim I made a few threads back that it's not really all that difficult with repeated exposure and moderate interest to develop passive competence in understanding the archaic English style of the King James Version and older editions of the Book of Common Prayer, although there always may be particular instances or lexical items that are more baffling than others (and learning the variety well enough to compose in it is more challenging). The Harder They Come soundtrack of course also includes Rivers of Babylon, whose lyrics are psalm texts in that older English style in what you might call its Rastafarian Recension.

  11. John Cowan said,

    September 3, 2009 @ 11:36 am

    Oh, and as to the goo goo g'joob and coo coo ca-choo phrases, I asked Mark Rosenfelder about that once, and he opined that John Lennon and Paul Simon probably had the same dope dealer.

  12. Erik said,

    September 3, 2009 @ 12:31 pm

    Scotty's Draw your brakes (full version here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mQrOfSxTG7U) is probably a really good example of code switching, or whatever linguists choose to call it. (I am certainly not a linguist.)

    For those who don't know, Scotty is a DJ, in the Jamaican sense. He is talking (toasting, rapping, whatever you like) over the lyrics of an earlier song, Keith & Tex's Stop that train (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JnQTGNcNpI4). The original song is entirely standard English, understandable by any native speaker in the US. (Excepting the nonsense syllables.) Most rocksteady of that era seems to be in standard Englsih – either to make it acceptable in the US/UK market or because that was just how it was done, I don't know which.

    Scotty starts off his version with a phrase that I suspect may have been chosen because of its incomprehensibility in standard English, or to an older speaker of Jamaican creole, or perhaps even to anybody who didn't spend time with Scotty. Finally, the rest of Scotty's work in this song is more in Jamaican creole, though at least partially comprehensible to this speaker of standard English. (Although it doesn't help that it is pretty poorly recorded.)

    Apologies if I got things wrong here, I am only partially informed about all of these topics.

  13. Stephen Jones said,

    September 3, 2009 @ 12:58 pm

    Ferguson first popularized the term diglossia, referring to the situation in Arabic speaking countries.

    Fishman proposed that diglossia could exist as a stable phenomena in cases of bilingualism ( a matter which is still highly controversial).

    As Cowan has pointed out code switching is different from diglossia. You often see code switching in a single sentence amongst bilinguals.

  14. Dhananjay said,

    September 3, 2009 @ 1:19 pm

    I spent part of my childhood in Jamaica, where I became fairly competent at understanding and producing mesolectal varieties of patois/Jamaican Creole English. But the basilect was still rather difficult for me to understand then and has become incomprehensible by now with the loss of most of my earlier facility. I rather doubt my (native) childhood friends would've known the words referenced above. But the sounds in the recording remains familiar both in phonology and intonation.

  15. Cameron said,

    September 3, 2009 @ 1:55 pm

    This reminds me of the late 70s hit by Althea and Donna – the Jamaican teenagers (at the time) whose song "Uptown Top Ranking" was a #1 hit in the UK in '78. That was a very authentic piece of Jamaican pop, and in the UK-context it was something of a novelty song, largely because of its inscrutable lyrics. I remember hearing DJs getting people to call in with attempts to construe its verses. For non-Jamaican listeners, the whole song was like one long mondegreen.

  16. wally said,

    September 3, 2009 @ 4:00 pm

    I remember the first version I saw of the movie The Harder They Come was very hard to understand. Then a second version came out, I think it was actually dubbed, but maybe it just had subtitles. In contrast to the comment in the link above, I and everyone I knew thought it was a great movie. Well, when you could understand it.

  17. dr pepper said,

    September 3, 2009 @ 4:19 pm

    This reminds me of something i heard on NPR about 10 years ago. A scottish commentator claimed that a lot of the language in Robert Burns was not authentic, it was stuff the poet had made up on his own and then foisted on his fellow citizens.

  18. James Wimberley said,

    September 3, 2009 @ 6:10 pm

    J.W. Brewer: "it's not really all that difficult with repeated exposure and moderate interest to develop passive competence in understanding the archaic English style of the King James Version…"

    Huh? Is there any evidence that English speakers with passive competence sufficient to read a contemporary newspaper have any serious difficulty in understanding the KJV? Having to look up the odd word in a dictionary (say urim and thummin) doesn't count as a real difficulty in understanding. This source texts are generally SFIK written in straightforward, compact prose, which Tyndale carried over very successfully. The Book of Common Prayer is I admit harder to follow because of the long, Latinate construction of the sentences, quite unlike the Bible; a style which survived at least till Dr. Johnson in literature, and is still around in legalese, worse luck.

  19. J. W. Brewer said,

    September 3, 2009 @ 6:42 pm

    Jas. W.: in the context of the earlier thread I was arguing that the KJV etc. style was comparatively comprehensible against those who were contending that it was comparatively non-comprehensible to generic speakers of modern English. So I don't think we're necessarily in disagreement. And for a wonderful rendition of Psalm 1 in the KJV (with some slight editorial emendations) chanted over a reggae background, check out http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TNBbep66pgg.

  20. Ray Girvan said,

    September 3, 2009 @ 9:50 pm

    Peter Taylor: Forward and payaaka, manhangle and den go saaka

    Despite the insider account reported at Steve Cotler's Irrepressibly True Tales, I'm not convinced of the "manhangle" part of the transcription. I've run it through SPEAR at various speeds, and can't hear it as anything but "manaacle".

  21. Ken Brown said,

    September 4, 2009 @ 11:36 am

    Cameron said: "This reminds me of the late 70s hit by Althea and Donna – the Jamaican teenagers (at the time) whose song "Uptown Top Ranking" was a #1 hit in the UK in '78. That was a very authentic piece of Jamaican pop, and in the UK-context it was something of a novelty song, largely because of its inscrutable lyrics. I remember hearing DJs getting people to call in with attempts to construe its verses. For non-Jamaican listeners, the whole song was like one long mondegreen."

    Hmmmm…. maybe it was because I'd already got into the habit of listening to dub reggae but I found it pretty easy to follow. Of course Dub is, as someone said, often in Rastaman talk which is an at least partly deliberate concoction of Jamaican dialect, standard English, "Biblical" English and some entirely invented elements (Such as "I and I" – traditional Jamaican uses "me" rather than "I")

    John Cowan said: "Diglossia is a structural relationship between two language varieties, whereas code-switching is a type of performance".

    Well, yes. There are not two distinct varieties of English that Jamaican people choose from. There is a continuum of varieties that they move along. Its a two or even three-dimensional continuum, not just a spectrum from "high" to "low". There are – I am told – varieties of local speech in Jamaica as well as forms that are common all over the island but are still not standard English – so its possible to speak the basilect in a distinclty local way or in a standard way (IFYSWIM). Here in London there are other choices as well. Last week in our local pub I was talking to a Jamaican and noticed that he seemed to be moving quite freely between something like my own "Estuary English" (with a slight Jamaican intonation) and what you might call "London Black" English. But then another Jamaican talked to him and they gradually moved off into a dialect that I found incomprehensible. And it was gradual, I progressively took in less and less of it as, presumably, they became more comfortable with each other's performance. But it is I think a continuum, and a multi-dimensional one. Speech can be more or less Jamaican, more or less standard, more or less "high", and more or less local – and a Jamaican in London has at least two localities to choose from.

    J. W. Brewer said: "And for a wonderful rendition of Psalm 1 in the KJV (with some slight editorial emendations) chanted over a reggae background, check out http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TNBbep66pgg."

    Thanks for that! Its wonderful. At the church I attend we usually use modern versions, but sometimes we use the AV Bible or 1662 prayerbook. For years I've thought that Jamaicans read the old language better than others. (Where others include Bajans and Trinidadians as well as us Brits and many Africans) An aesthetic preference but a real one.

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