‘Checking out me [grammar]’

John Agard has written this poem in Patois to show that his language and identity is just as worthy as that of the other writers in the English Literary Canon.

This student is right, of course, but there is far more of interest here, and we do Agard’s genius an injustice if this is where our discussion ends.

Stylistics is the field of study which applies grammatical concepts in the reading and analysis of literature. I am grateful to Marcello Giovanelli for working with me on our book for the last couple of years and, in doing so, stretching my English teacher brain. I’m not being hyperbolic when I say: grammar blows my mind.

So, I’m going to write a series of blogs about some of the grammatical readings of texts which I’ve found most powerful. The first is particularly personal for me.

John Agard’s brilliant Checkin Out Me History will be familiar to most English teachers in the UK – if you don’t know this text, have a look at Agard reading and discussing it here.

I have written in the past about my frustration with an anthology which, like those before it, positions black writers as people who can only write about race. If our students only ever read the anthology, it might surprise them to discover in later life that black writers are actually capable of writing about other topics: sunsets, lakes, angst and love are not just the domain of white poets. This blog isn’t about this, but it would be remiss of me if I didn’t share a counterbalance to the poem I’m discussing here – here’s a great poem Agard wrote about coffee and existentialism. Put that in your anthology, AQA.

Let’s talk about grammar, though. 

Checking Out Me History is written in Patois. There are many ‘patois’ around the world – the term simply means a non-standard form of a language, and often involves the mixing of two or more languages, and the borrowing and shifting of terms from one ‘code’ to another. Essentially, where any type of Patois is spoken, language is changing, being blended, morphed, and bent to the will of the speaker. I often think that this is where language becomes the most precise tool we have, where it is malleable, and the grammar of language is truly an array of interesting options, rather than a set of rules. Having said that, it’s important to understand that specific forms of Patois absolutely do have rules. They are grammatical systems which work differently to the ‘standard’ variety, and there are frameworks underpinning them which are clearly understood by the speakers of that language.

There are many varieties of English beside what we tend to call ‘Standard English’, and it is important that we don’t underestimate the power of the decision Agard makes in this poem to write in Patois. I have read a lot of essays which make the standard point that, ‘Agard writes in Patois to show that his language/culture (insert identity word here) is just as valid as Standard English.’ This is a fair point, certainly, but students often stop there. They don’t know what to do with that idea, beyond saying that Agard is asserting his authentic voice in the face of the established norms of canonical writers.

When we look at the grammar system at play here, we see something deeper.

There are a number of different patois which come out of the Caribbean. They share features, but are quite distinct from one another. 

For example, my own grandfather was from St Kitts, where the usual greeting was: “wha’a’m?” (what is happening?). People in his generation from Jamaica would have said: “what-a-gwan?” (what is going on?). This has since morphed into the widely used: “wagwan?” – something the elders in the Caribbean community when I was growing up used to decry as a “yout ting” (young people thing).

Agard is an Afro-Guyanese writer who attended school in Georgetown, British Guyana. He speaks Patois, but studied English, French and Latin at A Level – I think it is safe to assume that this is a writer who has a profound relationship with language and a sophisticated understanding of the choices he is making at a grammatical level.

As a general rule in the various Caribbean Patois, tense is not indicated with morphological inflection. What this means is, in Standard English, we show whether we are in the past or present tense by changing the form of the verb – e.g. tell (present), told (past). But in the form of Patois Agard uses, there is no such distinction:

Standard EnglishCaribbean PatoisTense notes
They tell meDem tell meSimple Present
They told meDem tell meSimple Past
They are telling meDem a tell mePresent Continuous
They have told meDem did tell mePast Perfect

Analysing the refrain

Dem tell me
Dem tell me
  1. It is repeated. Needless to say, this is significant. When writers do things more than once, they really want us to notice it.
  2. It is negated (‘no, dem never tell me’), creating the opportunity for the juxtaposition throughout the poem – moving from: they DID tell me this, to: they DIDN’T tell me that… We might talk about the modal verb ‘never’ creating a mirror-image and allowing us to see the ridiculous ‘dish’ running away with the ‘spoon’, alongside the sublime ‘fire-woman struggle’ of Nanny the Maroon.
  3. The pronoun ‘Dem’ is non-specific, so we could be talking about any number of groups of people. What we do know is that Agard is referring to an authority figure or figures. But the generalised ‘dem’ could mean anyone, even multiple groups. We could read this as specific teachers from his time at school, or the education sector in general, or people in government making education policy decisions, or people writing history books, or the British establishment in general, which has historically dictated the curriculum in countries which were part of the Empire.
  4. In terms of tense, ‘Dem tell me’ is ambiguous. It could mean: they told meorthey tell me. Agard, the language scholar and political thinker, makes this choice deliberately. Along with the generalised ‘dem’, the ambiguity in tense allows us to question the action of this unknown agent: Is this happening now? Did it happen in the past? Is he talking about an historical wrong which was perpetrated when he was at school? Or is this an ongoing deception where truth about our history is still being controlled and obfuscated by those in power? 

My feeling is that it is both.

Agard has made some conscious choices in using Patois to write this poem – the most obvious indicator of this is that he has moderated the level of language he has used, so that in many places it seems very close to what we might call ‘Standard English.’ He uses non-inflected verb forms and pronouns, for instance, but there are other elements of Caribbean Patois which he has chosen not to use. For example, at the end of the poem, he might have written: Bot now mi de check out mi own history. Agard choses instead to write: But now I checking out me own history. He has decided where to place this text on the scale, because Patois offers so many rich avenues of possibility. In his poem, Listen Mr Oxford Don, Agard talks explicitly about how he ‘don’t need no hammer to mash/ up you grammar’, and even says that he is ‘bashing future wit present tense’. The only possible conclusion here is that the grammar, the very bones of Agard’s lines, are consciously crafted. Grammar is political.

Let’s return to the student’s writing from the start of this post:
John Agard has written this poem in Patois to show that his language and identity is just as worthy as that of the other writers in the English Literary Canon.

We can absolutely say this: it is, after all, true. We must also remember that, by writing in Patois, Agard is simply writing in his first language. A talented linguist, he could choose to write in Standard English, or French, possibly even Latin (!), but he writes in Patois, first and foremost, because that is his most authentic voice. However, our increased grammar awareness might enable us to take this analysis to a far more sophisticated level. Here is how that might look in an essay:

John Agard has written this poem in Patois to show that his language and identity is just as worthy as that of the other writers in the English Literary Canon. It is particularly significant that the simple refrain, ‘Dem tell me’, creates a linguistic ambiguity which makes Agard’s political stance in this poem even more provocative. The pronoun ‘dem’, referring to a non-specific ‘they’, might describe anyone from individual teachers to politicians, from historians to entire nations. The reader is perhaps urged to question the identity of the agent in this poem; one who employs sinister tactics to obscure the truth with seemingly innocent nursery rhymes. This ambiguity is developed even further by the fact that ‘dem tell me’ could frame the action either in the past or present tense, because this form of Patois doesn’t use morphological inflection to indicate tense. This means that it is impossible to tell whether Agard is talking about something which happened in the past, or which is happening in the present, or both. Ideas about decolonisation of the curriculum are highly politicised and controversial, and the way Agard frames his experience is a subtle invitation to question and explore the nature of the wider problem: is this an old problem, or is our education system still perpetrating injustice? Agard’s use of non-Standard English grammar in this poem is clearly intended to provoke debate. 

If you liked this, you will love our book, Essential Grammar, which will be published by Routledge in June 2023.

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