Claude McKay's Early Poetry (1911-1922): A Digital Collection

Preface to "Songs of Jamaica" (1912)

WHAT Italian is to Latin, that in regard to English is the negro variant thereof. It shortens, softens, rejects the harder sounds alike of consonants and vowels; I might almost say, refines. In its soft tones we have an expression of the languorous sweetness of the South: it is a feminine version of masculine English; pre-eminently a language of love, as all will feel who, setting prejudice aside, will allow the charmingly naïve love-songs of this volume to make their due impression upon them. But this can only happen when the verses are read aloud, and those unacquainted with the Jamaican tongue may therefore welcome a few hints as to pronunciation.

As a broad general direction, let it be observed that the vowels have rather the continental than the English sounds, while in the matter of the consonants the variation from English is of the nature of a pretty lisp.

The exact values of the vowels cannot, of course, be described, but they approximate on the whole more to those of Italy and France than to those of England. One sound, that of aw, is entirely rejected, and ah is substituted for it. Thus bawl, law, call, daughter, etc., become bahl, lah, cahldahter, etc. 

In the word whe', which sometimes means where and sometimes which, the e has the same sound as in the word met. Deh is similarly pronounced, and the e is quite a short one, the h being added merely to distinguish deh from de (the). This short e often takes the place of the close English a, as in tek (take), mek (make).

My is almost invariably pronounced with a short y, and, to remind the reader of this, it is constantly spelt me. Fe -- generally meaning to, but sometimes for -- matches this short my exactly. In caan' (can't) the a is doubled in order to ensure the pronunciation cahn.

It is difficult to convey the exact value of do'n (down), groun' (ground). There is a faint trace of ng at the end of these words, and they rhyme to tongue pronounced very shortly and with a dumber vowel sound.

Vowels are sometimes changed out of mere caprice, as it seems. Thus we have ef for if, trimble for tremble, anedder for anudder (another), stimulent for stimulant, a -- pronounced short -- for I, sperit for spirit.

In ya, originally meaning d'you hear -- but now thrown in just to fill up, like the don't you know of certain talkers -- the a is a short ah.

We come now to the consonants. Bearing in mind what was said above of the pretty lisp, let the d so often -- generally, we may say -- substituted for th, be of the very softest, as it were a th turning towards d, or to put it in another way, a lazily pronounced th. The negro has no difficulty whatever in pronouncing it clearly: it is merely that he does not, as a rule, take the trouble to do so. In these poems the, they, there, with, etc., are not always written de, dey, dere, wid, etc.;  and the reader is at liberty to turn any soft th into d, and any d into soft th. And here let me remark, in passing, that in one breath the black man will pronounce a word in his own way, and in the next will articulate it as purely as the most refined Englishman. Where the substitution of d makes the word unrecognisable, as in moder (mother), oders (others), the spelling mudder, udders is resorted to; and for fear of confusion with well-known words, though, those are always written thus, although generally pronounced, dough, dose.

As d supplants the soft th, so does a simple t supplant the hard one; as in t'ing, not'ing (or nuttin' , -- for the g in words of two or more syllables is very commonly left out), t'ink, tick, t'rough, met'od, wutless (worthless).

V tends to pass into b, as in lub (love), hab, lib, ebery, neber, cultibation. Vex, though so written for the most part, is pronounced either with a decided b or with some compromise between that and v.

Of elisions, the commonest is that of the initial s when followed by another consonant. Thus start, spread, stop, scrape, spoil, sting, skin, etc., become 'tart, 'pread, 'top, 'crape, 'poil, ''ting, 'kin, etc.

Final d's are often dropped, as in lan', t'ousan', please' (pleased) and other past participles, min', chil' -- in these let care be taken to keep the long sound of the i' -- wul' (world), wud (word), en'.

Final t's also; as in breas', cas', 'gains' (against), i' (it), las', wha', wus' (worst), tas'e (taste).

Present participles, passin', brukin' (breaking), outpourin', etc., lose their g's; and final k's sometimes disappear, as in tas'. R's, too, as in you' for your, mo' for more, befo' or simply 'fo' for before: and they are even thrown out from the middle of words, as in wuk (work), tu'n (turn), wud (word). Will occasionally loses its l's and becomes wi'.

Initial vowels have also a habit of vanishing: as in 'bout (about), 'long (along), 'way (away), nuff (enough), 'pon (upon); but the elision of these and of longer first syllables is sometimes made up by tacking something to the end, and for about, without, because we get 'bouten, 'douten, 'causen.

On the construction of the language it is unnecessary to dwell, for it is fully explained in the notes, and the reader will soon master the mysteries of be'n with its various significations, is, was, were, have been, had been, did (as sign of the past tense); of deh, which may be either an adverb (there) or an auxiliary verb as in me deh beg (I am begging); of dem tacked close to its noun, to show it is plural; of tenses apparently past which are present, and apparently present which are past: for the unravelling of all which the needful help has, it is hoped, been supplied by the notes aforesaid.

Readers of this volume will be interested to know that they here have the thoughts and feelings of a Jamaican peasant of pure black blood. The young poet, aged twenty-two, spent his early years in the depths of the country, and though he has now moved to the more populous neighbourhood of Kingston, his heart remains in his Clarendon hills. He began life as a wheelwright, but the trade was not to his mind, and he left it and enlisted in the Constabulary.


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