Friday, February 11, 2011

What Rastamouse can tell us about grammar

The new Cbeebies series Rastamouse has been attracting favourable attention for its gentle pace, top soundtrack, likeable characters and, above all, its use of Jamaican English throughout. In fact, it's probably about time the Daily Mail launched a campaign to bring it off our screens for corrupting the nation's youth with its crazy creole.

As well as being fun to watch (and I was watching with my 6 year-old daughter, so it's not as tragic as it sounds) it's a mine of linguistic interest for anyone looking at non-standard grammar. One of the themes that we focused on in this previous post was that the spread of different varieties into the English language mainstream shouldn't be seen as a problem, but an opportunity to look at both the non-standard variety and the standard itself. Rastamouse and Da Easy Crew's use of non-standard grammar can therefore be a great chance to look at areas like subject verb agreement, pronouns and case, elliptical forms, tense formation and pluralisation. Of course, it's also interesting in terms of phonology and lexis, but we'll save them for now.

In episode 6, Hot Hot Hot, for example, Scratchy tells Zoomer "Ya skip a beat" using an uninflected verb skip to signify the past tense (skipped), while Rastamouse says "Mi just not feelin' it today", using the 1st person object pronoun, me, rather than the standard I. In this construction there's also ellipsis of the auxiliary verb in the present progressive construction (mi just not feeling it today, rather than I am just not feeling it today), another typical feature of Jamaican English.

And there's plenty more. Of course, the danger of looking at all of this as a comparison between a standard form and a variety is that a deficit model is applied i.e. that all variations are seen as away from a norm and that the variations are therefore somehow inferior. One way to avoid this - and I can't claim this is foolproof by any stretch - is to highlight the fact that these aren't just arbitrary deviations from a norm, but part of a pattern. The Jamaican English has a very logical system to it and the "rules" are applied consistently to the grammar.

Linguists such as Mark Sebba and Roger Hewitt have looked very closely at varieties of English such as this and charted their influence on the language of English speakers, so if you're looking at creoles for A level  English Language or just want to find some interesting resources on language variation, there's plenty to explore.

Now all I need to do is stop watching the episodes on the Cbeebies website and get to work on some resources that use clips from the show. Then all will be irie.

edited to clear up naming confusion


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