You Don’t Sound Caribbean!

You Don't Sound Caribbean

And what does that mean, please?

I remember the first time I heard this statement. I was fresh off the boat in jolly old England, first day of year 12. A girl asked me where I was from, then eyed me up and down critically, as if expecting my school uniform to turn red, gold and green, and the fabric to turn fishnet.

“You don’t sound Caribbean,” she said thoughtfully.

“What am I supposed to sound like?” I asked, curious. I had and still have a sing song lilt to my voice, a common rhythm amongst the more Antillean countries in the region. To me I sounded like my dad, a St Lucian man, except a teenage girl. What did this British girl mean?

“Oh… I guess kind of Jamaican?” She said. I must have had a look on my face because she disappeared faster than Usain Bolt at the starting pistol.

It’s weird when regions are lumped together under one sound. The UK is almost always shown as having either a Cockney accent or the Queen’s English. Australia, New Zealand and South Africa tend to be shown as a tangled mass of “g’day mates” and “barbies”, and the Caribbean is, I presume, identified by Sebastian the Crab. Which is fascinating when you think about it, given that there are 33 polities, 44 million people and only one country with a Jamaican accent – namely Jamaica. It’s a bit like asking a New Yorker why they don’t sound like a Valley girl!

The accents in our region is based on a combination of British English, French, Spanish, West African languages and dialects and in some cases South Asian languages in varying frequencies and influence. For example the Bajan accent (accents from Barbados for the noncustom readers) is rhotic, meaning they emphasise their r’s fully, versus Jamaicans who drop theirs constantly. Trinidad is known for a sing-song rhythm no doubt due to the large Indian community that has been there for generations. My accent is influenced by our creole; a mix of French, English, various West African languages, and a splash of Carib. How can we have the same accent on that basis? Some of us don’t even understand each other! And this is just for Anglophone accents – many places in the Caribbean do not speak English. I’d love to know if Cubans have a distinct accent from Dominicans or Puerto Ricans, I’m sure they do.

If you are faced with a brand new sound thanks to someone’s voice, fight the knee jerk reaction to compare it to a 90’s animated movie, and just say “I love your accent, where’s it from?” One thing about all of us island people? We love to talk about our islands. We’d be more than happy to share it with you.