Inflammatory language

David Starkey's comment that Jamaican patois drove last week's riots reveal a shockingly profound ignorance, argues Geoffrey K. Pullum

August 18, 2011

Most of the reaction to David Starkey's outburst on Newsnight about the aetiology of the riots has charged him with racism. We tend to hit that button a bit too readily. After all, if a racially identifiable group were responsible for some incident of mass disorder, it wouldn't be racist to point it out. But people seem to have been ignoring what Starkey actually said, which focused on - of all things - a cultural shift involving language:

"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."

The mindless destruction and looting was driven by Jamaican patois? I was staggered by this charge. He's referring to a language I happen to know reasonably well, and have a real affection for. It's usually known as Jamaican Creole, though Jamaicans often call it patwa (patois). I first encountered it when working alongside Jamaican musicians in the 1960s. I was married to a Jamaican for many years and had many Jamaican relatives and friends. And I learned more about it as an undergraduate in the department of language that was founded at the University of York by Robert Le Page, one of the first scholars to point out that Jamaican Creole was academically interesting.

Jamaican Creole is closely related to English but not mutually intelligible with it. It has distinct syntactic as well as phonological, morphological and lexical features. Very few white people know it. It can be rather hard to study if you don't have a family connection, because in Jamaica it tends to be deprecated. Educated Jamaicans dismiss it (incorrectly) as bad English, and often deny that they know it.

I certainly know it well enough to identify it when I hear it. And although I heard many rioters and looters speaking or shouting on radio or television reports, I heard not one who was speaking Jamaican Creole.

Jamaicans raised in England for even a few years virtually always speak the English of their region of England. And white boys and girls in England typically have not even a smattering of Jamaican Creole. Repeating a few stereotyped catchphrases ("Yes mon!"), or knowing a few slang words, is not speaking Jamaican Creole. Nor is speaking English with a Jamaican accent.

There are hundreds of thousands of native speakers of Jamaican Creole in England, but they are mostly older people, very few of them monolingual the way my mother-in-law was. Many or even most of the native speakers would be late middle-aged Jamaicans, often quite Victorianly conservative, who were furious at the sight of the rioters and looters and spoke out angrily against them (in English with hints of Jamaican Creole influence).

Did Starkey really mean what he said? Well, he gave an additional clear indication of believing that the dangerous blacks are marked out by their patois, while safe ones such as the MP for Tottenham speak white English. "Listen to David Lammy, an archetypical successful black man," he said in his defence: "if you turned the screen off, so that you were listening to him on radio, you'd think he was white."

It doesn't seem to have been a misunderstanding: Starkey honestly appears to believe that the Jamaican linguistic patterns he (wrongly) imagines he is hearing from young white Londoners come with a cultural infection that will help induce them to burn down a carpet shop.

And he declares that Jamaican Creole is prevalent enough to make England "literally (sic) a foreign country" to him. If true, this would be the most dramatic new linguistic development in the British Isles since the Norman conquest (and more successful, since Norman French didn't stick).

England could only really seem like a foreign country to Starkey if on the basis of an image from his post-war early childhood he thinks that faces of English people must always be white. The notion that the sociolinguistic situation supports that is too zany to be countenanced.

I'm inclined to doubt that this incident was serious enough to put paid to Starkey's career as a broadcaster. But it has put paid to his image as a person of intelligence as far as I'm concerned. Blaming the riots on a language he doesn't know, which the rioters didn't speak, is so profoundly stupid that for me it ranks right down there with the Croydon girls drinking stolen rose who told the BBC World Service "It's the government's fault" and the fault of "the rich people".

We don't fully understand the causes of this month's riots. As Tim Stanley of Royal Holloway, University of London, pointed out in The Telegraph (13 August), the English are not uniformly nice people, and the history of their violent street disorder goes back at least to London's riots against foreign merchants in 1517, and we don't fully understand what caused them either.

But for heaven's sake, our ignorance doesn't have to be quite as extreme as that of Starkey or the stupid rose-drinkers. It wasn't the government, it wasn't rich people, and it wasn't Jamaican Creole.

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