Register Wednesday | September 27 | 2023
Ol' Talk Photographs by Kamil Bialous.

Ol' Talk

After years of burying her Trinidadian accent, the author reawakens to the richness of her native tongue.

"Dis boi will eat up he family in trut.”

I read the line aloud with its Trinidadian inflections, in the way I believed the character would have actually spoken it. The words—uttered with unease by the protagonist’s father in V.S. Naipaul’s novel A House for Mr. Biswas—flowed out of me, and it felt good. Better than good. It had been a very long time since I’d last sat alone and felt compelled to use dialect. Like a comforting scent, the lyrical highs and lows triggered familiar feelings both warm and conflicted, much more complicated than nostalgia.

In the novel, this line, along with all of the dialogue, is written in British English:

“This boy will eat up his family in truth.” 

I WAS A SEEN-AND-NOT-HEARD CHILD. Raised to be polite and tight-lipped, my meekness allowed my presence among adults to go mostly unnoticed. Always within earshot of lively conversation—fast-talking, grin-inducing and punctuated with laughter—I took in all the unfiltered chatter.

When I was six years old, I was at one of the countless house parties my family was invited to in the early years of our new life in Canada. We revelled in our own little social village then, made up mostly of relatives and close friends who were also recent immigrants from Trinidad. There was always some birthday or milestone celebration, or holiday get-together, or just-because-we-deserve-a-bit- of-fun fête to attend.

A man in the crowd began to look around the room, trying to locate his wife. He asked the people nearest to him if they had seen her. I could have asked, “Where is she?” but a choice phrase came to my mind, something I had heard earlier and logged away as one of those fun little idioms. I yelled out: “Whey she dey dey?”

Several people around me laughed, loudly. I delighted in the attention until I saw my mother’s face. Her smile was pursed and forced. Her eyes stared down at me in that tell-tale way. I’d done something wrong. She took me by the hand, led me aside and reprimanded me to tears.

In Trinidad, "Whey she dey dey?" scrapes the bottom of the inevitable hierarchy of speech that exists in any language. Saying the phrase at my tender age was akin to a toddler blurting out an expletive after stubbing a toe. I hadn’t cussed, but my mother corrected me as if I had; what I had said was improper, coarse, foul—I was never to speak that way again.

From then on, I did as children do when they want to learn how to navigate the world: I followed the cues of my parents. I listened with a turned ear whenever they spoke to Canadians. Although my parents’ Trinidadian accents were never fully erased, their diction and tone would shift to something deliberate, with much of the colour wrung out.

I have always been conscious of the way I speak, hyper-aware of the sounds that fight to be the first out of my mouth. My group classroom portraits when I was young were quintessentially multicultural—rows upon rows of toothy, chubby-cheeked faces of nearly every ethnicity a person could imagine. However, most of my young schoolmates were born and raised in Canada and spoke with Canadian accents like all of my teachers. Before I understood what the word meant, assimilation was my goal.

While my accent is now dominantly Canadian, there are still occasions when I speak in slang, with a somewhat garbled and uneven Caribbean articulation. I’m prone to over-think and over-enunciate, worried that I’m saying things wrong. Whatever “wrong” is. Attempting to reconcile the polarity of being a Trinidadian-Canadian—and the tug-of-war of allegiances that goes with the attempt—is an exercise in self-discovery that has been both enriching and exhaustingly circular.

NATURE DRIVES US to adjust to our circumstances. The mimic octopus will twist and turn and fold its body to look like various kinds of fish, or snakes, or to simply disappear into the sea bed. The lyrebird will reproduce the sounds of its environment, including the mating call of other birds and animals. Assimilation may begin as a survival tactic of sorts, but it’s also a matter of choice. And unlike my animal comrades, I get to be cognitively conflicted about what I do and why.

The intricacy of verbal indicators—language, word choice, even something as simple as an upward inflection—can speak volumes about a person. Hearing a familiar accent or a hometown turn-of-phrase in public is like detecting a homing beacon. Everything else fades into white noise. “Language is such an emotional issue for everyone,” says Molly Babel, an aptly-named professor of linguistics at the University of British Columbia (UBC) who focuses on speech perception in societies with a range of dialects. “It is a huge part of our presentation of our identities and others use it—for better or worse—to label and categorize us.”

The biggest misconception, Babel says, is probably “that some dialects or accents are better than others.” She cites the North American perception that a British accent sounds intelligent and elegant, while an accent from the southern United States sounds unsophisticated. “In a nutshell, we are more likely to imitate the speech patterns of others when we have positive feelings towards that individual or what that individual’s speech patterns represent.” On the other hand, linguistic discrimination is the act of prejudice against a person because of the way they speak. It’s wrapped up in the notion that speech indicates upbringing, education, economic status, prestige, sociocultural environment and a plethora of other factors that serve to maintain an audible pecking order. Dialect is interpreted as a barometer of strength and weakness. Of intelligence and stupidity. George Orwell called it being “branded on the tongue.”

When I was still a child, one of my cousins was forced to enrol in speech therapy, the elementary school’s attempt to fix how he spoke. While his mother was earning her master’s degree in Guelph, Ontario, he lived with my family in the Etobicoke suburbs of Toronto and enrolled in school with me and my siblings. He was diagnosed with a long list of “problematic” speech patterns that were really nothing more than a Trinidadian accent. He didn’t pronounce the th at the beginnings of words. Thing was ting. The was dee. Them was dem. He also didn’t pronounce the er at the end of words. Water was wat-ah. Teacher was teach-ah.

He attended therapy diligently, but the vocal exercises didn’t stick. He pronounced all of the words exactly as he was instructed, then walked out of the room and immediately fell back into his natural way of speaking. In the end, it didn’t matter. Although it had been their initial plan to stay in Canada, my aunt and cousin decided they ought to return to Trinidad. From time to time, my cousin will talk about how much he disliked going to those sessions. To this day, whenever I speak to him, he affects an exaggerated Canadian accent to tease me: “How’s the weather up there in Ca-na-der?” I suspect the voice he employs is that of his former speech therapist.

My cousin would be pleased to learn that in her forty-plus-year career, Barbara May Bernhardt—a clinical speech pathologist who teaches at UBC’s School of Audiology and Speech Sciences—has seen a significant turnaround in how speech-language pathologists approach accent reduction. “Pronunciation-wise, there are often misconceptions when considering speech without dialect. It can be sometimes misconstrued as ‘development errors,’ which would be an incorrect assessment when a person’s cultural upbringing is not considered.” Mis-diagnosing dialect as language difficulty or impairment can result in detrimental long-term effects, including feelings of low self-worth and negative attitudes towards education.

Unlike the lessons experienced by my cousin, the British Columbia school system’s practices incorporate a “bidialectal” approach, which respects both the standard and the dialect. Standard English as a Second Language is a linguistic phenomenon that is now recognized in schools in indigenous communities in the province. One of the core beliefs of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association is that no dialectal variety of American English is a disorder or a pathological form of speech or language. And, all across the globe, variants of World English (also known as International English, which includes dialects of all forms) are becoming more prevalent and accepted.

However, both Babel and Bernhardt acknowledge that discrimination based on voice still exists. The first impression when interviewing for a job or meeting new colleagues is so important to professional development and is influenced by several factors, including how we speak. Because of this, some adults opt for accent reduction therapy.

I USED TO DESCRIBE the way my parents and most of my relatives spoke as broken English. I had heard more than a few people use the term during my childhood. For years, no one corrected me. I was eventually told by my sister, who was enthusiastically contemplating all manner of things in her undergraduate studies at the time, that the language Trinidadians speak is not broken English but, rather, a dialect.

Some would argue that there isn’t much of a difference between language and dialect. Max Weinreich, a Yiddish sociolinguist, popularized the saying, “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.” As the writer Lauren Webb asks, “Why is it that one language is classed as a language, and another is classed a dialect? Some dialects have hundreds of thousands of speakers, whereas some languages have less than one thousand.” But my feeling that Trinidadian English was somehow lesser than the Queen’s English continued to plague me for many years.

My mother and father both speak in a dialect associated with the southern region of Trinidad, comprised mostly of small towns and farming communities. Their accent indicates a middle- or working-class background. The difference is subtle, but makes for an emphatic social marker that separates most of my family from those who live north, in and near the capital city Port of Spain, a region associated with upper-class sensibilities.

My aunt has lived in southern Trinidad her entire life. She and I share a quietness; we are listeners in a very vocal family. Her childhood stories are seldom told, which invests anything she tells me with added resonance.

As a scrappy ten-year-old, my aunt once ran through her father’s garden in bare feet and stepped on a thorn. She hobbled inside, yelling:

“Someting jook my foot!”

At the time, one of her own aunts (my great-aunt or Tanty) had been entertaining a suitor. They were enjoying an afternoon tea on my grandmother’s Royal Doulton, the china set she kept on the highest shelf in her living room display case. The suitor—a wealthy man from a gated community in the north—turned to my aunt and said, “Say that again.”

She repeated herself. “Someting jook me.”

He smirked at her. “Now, I don’t think that’s the right word. Do you?”

She was confused. She had no idea what he was talking about.

He continued, “Jook. Jook is not correct. What is the proper word?”

He spoke the word “jook” as though it was a bad taste in his mouth and made her stand in the middle of the room, waiting while she grew mortified and close to tears. After several minutes of silence, he finally let her off the hook.

“The correct word is jab. Or prick,” he said before waving her away.

Prick, indeed.

BY THE TIME I WAS A TEENAGER—engulfed by the turmoil of finding my footing in high school—my Canadian accent became my dominant voice, both in public and at home. However, I had the ability to “turn off” the Canadian and “turn on” the Trinidadian when the situation called for it. Sometimes, my classmates would ask me to “say something in Trini.” I always shrank at the thought and they always urged me on. I would close my eyes and feel the stretch of my embarrassed grin, uncomfortable on the centre stage. They’d give me a sentence to convert and I’d do it for them like I was performing a party trick.

Eventually, I refused to flaunt my Trinidadian accent for kicks with friends. It felt degrading. I was tired of being pointed out for what made me different and politely denied the requests until I simply lost the ability to “turn it on.” I couldn’t switch to the Trinidadian dialect outside of my home anymore, and that was fine by me. By then, I had been living in Canada for fifteen years, and I was feeling all that much closer to being a true citizen of the Great White North.

My connection to dialect now exists predominantly in the speech of others, but I fall into that way of speaking whenever I’m in the presence of close company. A word here or there will flourish at the end when I chat with my mother and father, or I might use a certain expression to make a point when conversing with my brother and sister. Speaking to each other in this subtly fluctuating way is just one facet of our family’s intimacy. Still, whatever the occasion may be, I would always become aware of the shift and it never sounded right. I had come to terms with the fact that I had lost the ability to enjoy speaking in my dialect until I began to read A House for Mr. Biswas.

The Trinidadian opinion of V.S. Naipaul is fascinating. Although he was born and raised in Trinidad, he moved to England at the age of eighteen. The novel has been perceived as a fictional re-telling of Naipaul’s father’s life, based on the writer’s childhood memories. Mohun, the protagonist, steers away from expectations dictated by generations of deeply-rooted tradition; his is a lifelong struggle with “culture,” trying to be his own man. The book earned Naipaul international acclaim and established him as one of the best writers of his time. Despite this success, there is a sizeable group of Trinidadians who call him a traitor, a man who left the country only to exploit it years later for literary fame. He has been judged for misrepresenting the land and its people. While there are many reasons for the contempt—Naipaul is notoriously thorny and unaccommodating—his careful Oxbridge accent is one very noticeable indication of his distance from his birthplace.

An incident supposedly occurred several years ago during one of Naipaul’s visits to Trinidad, not long after he received the Nobel Prize. It’s a story that has made its rounds viva voce, certainly shifting and evolving as it passes from mouth to mouth. A large crowd had gathered at an event to celebrate the author’s literary work and achievements. Several people asked him questions about his writing, his inspiration and his life in England. One frowning man stood up and, in a very strong accent, said simply, “I knew your father.” Four words meant to pull him down, to remind him that he had come from humble beginnings. Four words meant to jook what some have deemed an inflated ego.

Naipaul made his choice very firmly and relatively simply: he would become an English gentleman and leave Trinidad mostly behind. For many of us, it’s not so easy. Jodi Picoult wrote it best in Change of Heart: “In the space between yes and no, there’s a lifetime. It’s the difference between the path you walk and the one you leave behind; it’s the gap between who you thought you could be and who you really are.”

During one of our cross-country video-chats, I tell my parents that I’m finally reading the Naipaul novel. We discuss the beauty of the book’s narrative and language and my father’s face lights up, as it always does when he tells me about his youth. His words are rich with cherished memory. He smiles inwardly at things I will never fully understand.

For a long time, I was envious that I didn’t have that same strong connection to the place where I was born. Yet, somehow, it feels much more precious, seeing those people and places entirely through his telling—through his voice.