Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Queen's English

I remember in the 80’s, while still a teenager, they’d speak of the “royal lisp”. It was a condition thought to afflict gay men where a slight tied-tongue would give a quality to your speech that the likes of the late Stephanie Hospedales would be happy to help you with. Everything was to be corrected, buck teeth, riders, bandy legs anything that was not a feature the majority of us shared. Before I lose my point though, the “royal lisp” was considered a sure sign that one was ac/dc, a popular euphemism for gay back in the day.

I moved to New York and it was there that the queen’s English became more significant. It was a code amongst a downtown set that does what all language does, it unites as much as it gives color to the expression of a sub-culture. One popular House song would later ask Do you Know the Queen’s English?

In Trinidad and Tobago we can still say that the Queen’s English is the preferred mode of communication. Some eschew it all together and speak dialect. I practise what Linguists call, code-switching. It’s characteristic of many Caribbean people, to flow seamlessly from Standard or Queen’s English to dialect in one sentence or depending on the circumstance. Like when a neighbor approached me last night and asked how I was the only answer to give was “normal” as opposed to my usual “I’m alright thanks.”

It was at my home in Brooklyn one day many years ago that my brother, Kevin, questioned me after he heard an exchange between me and a friend where we repeatedly referred to each other as “bitch” as in: “bitch please I never told you that”. He found the use of the term unnatural between men and at that moment began another level of disassociation with a life style or culture if you will which I had found my self a part of quite comfortably.

If a queen says to you “you’re tired!” it has nothing to do with you being exhausted well not directly. It’s a statement about an action or position they don’t approve of. Example: a: I just bought a WonkaDonka shirt. Cost me a thousand dollar but its fierce! B: Miss thing that’s not fierce that’s really tired, why would pay that for a shirt? This example carries many examples of queen’s English but also shows that not all queens are willing to shell out the asking price for fashion, that would require a blog entry all its own.

It would be some years before I left New York and while Kevin takes a lot of licks as my older sometimes domineering brother, I want to say the loss of that learned tongue, queen’s English helped dislocate me in a sense and in part facilitated my leaving New York. I was no longer speaking the same language as my tribe, the values of the tribe questioned, I was moved to a no man’s land in some senses. The implications have been heavy. It was akin to the loss of a mother tongue. It has possibly led to a stasis on many fronts.

I have been accused of not living my life fully in the past ten years by some who know me. Part of the problem is that there are aspects of my past that I don’t care to relive and having changed I feel estranged from a world I wonder was ever for me.

I’ve been reading up on ethnography for a workshop I have to do this trimester and it speaks of the elements of culture, cultural knowledge, cultural behavior and cultural artifacts. When an observed group agrees on these or exhibits them routinely enough they are believed to share a culture. It doesn’t take an anthropologist to know what happens when an individual is removed from a culture.

Part of the struggle for me in being back in Trinidad and Tobago is which cultural grouping do I belong to? My best friends have for the most part all become parents. We share knowledge, behavior and artifacts. I cant say that it doesn’t still leave me sometimes lost for a sense of identity. Last Carnival I was a Wotless Trini, this year I find myself sometimes a Bacchanalist, A Baddess and in a chorus singing Mr Fete? I want to leave myself with options for my Carnival Tuesday portrayal but I’ll most likely be found in the Vulgar Fraction, a bit poetic if you ask me. These are all partial representations, though, as the vernacular of Carnival is seasonal.

Migration and repatriation are not without their issues for me. The process of cultural assimilation following migration and then disengagement can leave one feeling like many. The point may not be clear but suffice it to say we are united by intangibles, language among them, as well values. Both of which are inconsistent in my expression. I just wish there was a place like a dictionary or grammar book to help me know what is standard, as when one speaks the Queen’s English.

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