David Starkey on rioting and Jamaican language

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A week after the riots that sprang up across a large part of England, pundits are struggling to find smart and profound things to say. One of the least successful has been David Starkey, a historian and veteran broadcaster. Speaking about the results of immigration into Britain since the sixties, he explained on the BBC 2 TV program Newsnight (video clip and story here):

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 has been intruded in England, and that is why so many of us have this sense of literally a foreign country.

So it wasn't not mindless, ignorant, immoral lust for consumer goods that was behind the copycat violence of the August riots across England; it's language what done it! That damned Jamaican patois is responsible! What a moron. My latent prejudices are whispering to me (I will try to resist) that white historians must have an innate intelligence deficit.

Jamaican Creole (JC), also known as Jamaican patois, is a language very closely related to English but not mutually intelligible with it. In structure, syntactic as well as morphological and phonological, it is distinct from English in numerous ways. Sometimes it seems grammatically simpler than English: it's comparable with Chinese in lack of inflection, and people usually think learning 200 irregularly inflected verbs (that's roughly how many English has) is a mark of complexity. Sometimes it's definitely neater: JC has one personal pronoun for each person/number combination, including a number distinction in the 2nd person (ju is singular, unu is plural). But sometimes the grammar seems more complex: there are three different counterparts of be restricted to distinct constructions — the locative verb defor phrases denoting locations ("He is in the garden" = im de ina di yaad), the auxiliary a for progressive aspect ("He is running" = im a ron), and zero copula for predication ("He is crazy" = im kriezi).

JC It seems a richly interesting and attractive language to me, but then I was married to a Jamaican (my first wife, Joan Rainford) for many years, and had Jamaican relatives and friends in both London and Jamaica. To a modest extent I can speak the language; but I have seen no evidence of white boys and girls in England having even a respectable smattering. Repeating a few snippets or catchphrases ("Yes mon!"), or knowing a few lines from reggae or rap songs, is not speaking JC.

We're talking here about a regular language, the native tongue of probably two or three million people, with a grammar that needs to be mastered. (Its grammar is reasonably well studied now. Fifty years ago Robert B. Le Page, the founder of the department at York where I earned my undergraduate degree, started pushing for the study of Jamaican Creole to be taken seriously, and his controversial efforts did eventually bear fruit.) Very few white people speak JC well. And it is rather hard for a linguist without family connections to get native speakers to provide information about it, because it is somewhat deprecated in Jamaica: middle-class people often refer to it (incorrectly) as bad, ignorant English, and claim (falsely) they do not speak it at all. Attempting to learn it would be very strongly discouraged, and Le Page's suggestions that it might be used in elementary schools were greeted with hostility.

English with a Jamaican accent is not to be confused with JC. There are hundreds of thousands of native speakers of JC in England, but they are mostly older people, and very few of them monolingual the way my mother in law was. They would typically be the sort of middle-aged and Victorianly conservative Jamaicans who were furious at the sight of the rioters and looters, and spoke out angrily against them. I heard many rioters and looters speaking on radio or television reports, and none of them were speaking JC. Jamaicans raised in England virtually always speak the English of their region. England only seems like a foreign country to those who are assuming, on the basis of a picture some sixty years out of date, that faces of English people are always white.

People are calling Starkey racist now, and suggesting his TV career is over. I have no idea whether he truly dislikes or despises black people on grounds of their blackness. (He certainly did give some signs of being afraid of them and hostile to their influence. And he added: “Listen to David Lammy, an archetypical, successful black man: if you turned the screen [sic] off, so that you were listening to him on radio, you’d think he was white." Message: safe blacks talk like whites, dangerous ones talk patois.) But I know he's pig-ignorant about JC and about language generally. His comment about "Jamaican patois" being involved in the culture that led to the rioting — as if a linguistic system could induce you to burn down a carpet store — puts his reputation, as far as I'm concerned, down in the toilet along with that of the (multiracial) rioters and looters. Down there with people as stupid as the Croydon girls interviewed on the BBC World Service, drinking stolen wine at 9:30 a.m., who said the riots were "the government's fault", or that of "the rich people". He's as dumb as that.

Added later: Ben Zimmer suggests to me that the brouhaha of five years ago about fake Jamaican — "Jafaican" — taking over from working-class London English might be relevant here (see Mark Liberman's post on the topic). Not much, I'd say. Starkey doesn't seem to be distinguishing JC from Jafaican, and that's what confirms that he is being a bone-headed idiot about language and culture as well as the causes of riotous assembly.

Added August 15: The remarks about language in the (broadly sympathetic) column today by the conservative teacher Katharine Birbalsingh in a blog hosted by The Telegraph are broadly correct:

Starkey’s claim that he feels like a foreigner in his own country because Jamaican patois rules the streets is laughable. Has David Starkey ever been to Jamaica? My mother is Jamaican, and I can assure you that she sounds nothing like our out-of-control kids! For one, the accent Starkey is talking about is specific to London. I don’t think the kids in Manchester sound like the kids in London. Two, that accent (the one he imitated in that hilarious Starkeyesk fashion on Newsnight) is uniquely ENGLISH. It is a kind of fusion of many cultures, including Cockney East End speech. One can also hear some Jamaican influence, general working-class London influence and so on. Does Starkey really believe that Jamaicans go around saying “innit”? “Innit” has a Cockney glottal stop in it! Interestingly, this accent not only is not Jamaican, but neither is it in American gangster culture. What MTV rapper sounds like our kids?

She adds: "his thinking was lazy and ill-informed. As an academic, he should have done better. What is also unfortunate is that his very crude remarks enable so many on the Left to just dismiss the larger issue of the influence of gangster culture, which is very harmful to some of our youth." I hope it is clear that I do not dismiss the influence of gangster culture at all. But in this modern world it is increasingly crucial, as Franz Boas was warning us a hundred years ago, to distinguish between race, language, and culture, and we seem to be doing extremely badly at it.

[Mi na gweng mek piipl kament aaf di tap a dem hed; nat fi nuobadi. Neba, unu onastan? No bada mi.]


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