I happened to be in court this morning. It was one of those days when the court's list is long, the Crown Prosecution Service couldn't get their act together, investigating police officers were absent, the Judge was in a foul mood, almost as if he had a smash up with his wife earlier. I had rushed out of the house as usual, almost late and dashed into court breathing heavily, hoping that my client too was late. Court had already started sitting and the first accused in the dock was a black man, not unusual really. I was scanning the public gallery, checking to see if my client saw me rushing in, was relieved to find that he wasn't there when I heard the Judge ask the defendant if he spoke English. "Yes sir", came the reply. I noted that this defendant was representing himself. Apparently he had been arrested the previous night for a public order offence that involved a fracas with some other people in the street. The others had got away, but he was nabbed by the cops, spent the night enjoying the hospitality of the Metropolitan Police in one of their cells and here he was standing in the dock with his hands held behind him.
And so the charge was read to him and he was asked if he understood the charge. When he answered in the affirmative, he was then asked how he would plead. This man started to speak, but was halted by the clerk before he got very far. It was explained to him that all he needed to say was whether he accepted the charge or not, to which the defendant shook his head. This was recorded as a not-guilty plea. I was starting to enjoy this. Then the prosecutor spelt out the facts as had been recorded by the police. Mr defendant was then required to provide an explanation for why he was involved in a street fight the night before. This man launched into a potentially lengthy speech in quite unintelligible Jamaican patois. Watching the Judge's face I could see it contort from bewilderment at first, to confusion, then irritation and then downright frustration. This was a Judge who was sour to start with, and now this. I heard whimpers of suppressed laughter from around the courtroom. "I thought you said you spoke English?", the Judge shouted at the defendant. I was sure that this defendant was utterly convinced that the language he had spoken to the court was English. In the end, the case had to be put back for a few hours, so a Jamaican patois interpreter could be found.
A language cannot be English when it is not understandable to English speakers. When I first came to live in the UK many years ago, I realised that my knowledge of the English language surpassed that of many of those for whom English is a native tongue. I had difficulty understanding the speech of many of those working class Londoners with whom one had to associate in those early stages of life as an immigrant. And it was less to do with their accent and pronunciation, than it was to do with the actual grammatical construction of their spoken English. I am a sucker for languages and I love the English language. It is the language everybody wants to learn and I realise how fortunate those of us are who speak it. With English, you can get by in Athens, Amsterdam, Rio de Janeiro or Oslo. In Brazil in particular, it's even kind of cool when you can speak a few words of English. They call their own particular brand 'Brazlish', the vocabulary of which as far as I could tell, does not extend beyond the words "more or less", which seemed to be standard the answer to every question.
I like the way English is spoken by educated people, irrespective of the accent. I have a leaning towards the English that is spoken with the urban African accent, which is devoid of a second language influence. Like most Africans, I am multi-lingual. But English is my first language and I find that there are more and more non-English people for whom English is a first language. I don't mean people like Australians or Canadians or Americans who have no other language but English. I'm talking about Africans and Asians who have their own native languages, but prefer to communicate and even think in English. And because English has become a first language to people such as myself, we speak it in a manner that is uniquely African but not influenced by any particular African language.