Book Review: London Jamaican

London Jamaican: Language Systems In Interaction, by Mark Sebba

Does this book need to exist? I’m not sure if it does. What is true is that this book is an effort to deal with the interaction between Jamaican creole and other dialects of English that interact in the London area. This is the sort of linguistics project that will earn someone a Ph.D, but one you hope didn’t cost too many tax dollars as it would be a waste to pay much on it. That is not to say that this book is worthless. It is mildly entertaining if you have an interest in linguistics, but the author is drawing some pretty serious conclusions on very slender evidence here, only a few conversations that provide the raw material for all kinds of generalizations about how it is that people use Creole, whether Jamaican, other British Caribbean, or even white resident of London’s poorer areas. Many readers of this book would likely think that perhaps a bit more information about how Creole is used would be worthwhile before one starts to jump to conclusions, but the universal tendency to generalize is in full bloom in this particular work and it is fascinating to see, though troubling at the same time.

This book is a short one at less than 200 pages. The book begins with acknowledgements and then some transcription conventions, which are important because the raw material in this book was based on the transcriptions of various speeches and the author’s attempt to draw wildly inappropriate conclusions from them, some of which are repeated often because the author uses them to make a wide variety of (mostly unsupported) points. After that there is an introduction on how Creole got to England (1). The author details his search for “London Jamaican” and the efforts he went to encourage people to speak it where he could record it, which was no doubt a difficult task because of the mistrust that outsiders tend to draw in such cases (2). After that the author discusses various approaches to describing and categorizing Creole (3). Then there are two chapters that contrast the possibility between London Jamaican (4) and Black London English (5) as names for the result of the interaction between the London accent and the Creole accent that the authors find being spoken by various people, by no means all of them from Jamaica or even the Caribbean. This leads to a discussion on the use of Jamaican English within the family (6) as well as the uses of code-switching within conversations (7). The author then examines the complexity of people based on their various accents (8) and gives an epilogue on the use of Creole in education, a rather unpopular matter (9), after which there are two appendices that discuss two systems (i) and give the transcripts of the conversations (ii), after which there is a bibliography and index.

How can one recognize what aspects of Jamaican Creole are being used by others? One would have to see more than ten conversations to ponder how it is being used, but the examples of speech provided, even if there are not as many of them as one would hope, still give at least an indication of how it is that people who are in contact with a dialect may switch into it for purposes of humor, even if such efforts meet with instant ridicule. Likewise, the fact that the author can spend 140 pages talking about conversations that, even with commentary, fill only 20 pages of material is remarkable and striking. It is frequently the case that a great deal of analysis rests on a small amount of material, and when it comes to understanding Jamaican Creole and its interactions with London English, it appears that someone is writing a lot about a little. I hope at least that the author got some kind of advanced degree out of this, because it is not particularly useful to anyone else and it might as well have given the author some advanced education so at least something resulted from it.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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