The power of speech, nah boy

Paolo Kernahan -
Paolo Kernahan -


NAH GYUL dawg, dah fella bleedin' dawg gyul..dawg nah boy gyul...dawg.

This was the running commentary on a TikTok video I saw recently. I struggled to assemble a picture of what was happening. The reportage was such garbled gibberish it was impossible to know.

Even more horrifying than the untold story was the way it was mercilessly minced beyond recognition in the teeth of the teller. It was like the talking version of morse code but instead of intermittent flashes of light, it was a sequence of "dawgs."

Inarticulate, unintelligible speech is now so widespread in TT, it's becoming difficult for the untrained ear to decode the average Trini conversation.

Before you go off half-cocked about "we cultear," I'm not slamming our Trini dialect. The flavours of our speech shade in all the exotic hues of our national character.

My observations are restricted to the inability to clearly articulate thoughts, ideas and knowledge. How can a society evolve if people can't express themselves coherently?

From our schools, all the way to higher offices in the government and the business community, standard English and clarity of diction are endangered species.

In the media, in the public and private sectors, among politicians – at every turn and in almost every sphere of life, our people are serving up word salads overseasoned with ahms and ems. Information is jumbled and unclear, made more so by a sparse vocabulary and a full-blown addiction to crutch words – riight, yuh unnerstand?

At news conferences, journalists fumble furiously at articulating questions for politicians. In turn, politicians struggle to articulate answers. The problem is painfully acute when they feel the need to be evasive on account of either obvious or implied malfeasance; they give off cornered-rat vibes.

There are fewer exemplars of fluent, lucid speech today than even in our recent history. Regardless of how you judge their politics, Basdeo Panday and Patrick Manning set a high bar for articulation. Public figures like Julian Kenny, John Spence, Archbishop Anthony Pantin, Lloyd Best, Peter Minshall, Diana Mahabir-Wyatt and Morgan Job were all beacons of erudite discourse.

Most of those voices have fallen silent; the ones still with us are heard less often. Once, this society had touchstones of intellectual heft. Now we're cursed with rambling political street-corner gun talk.

As a society, we pooh-pooh effective communication skills. When the byproduct of that indifference shows up on television, on the radio, among politicians, business personalities and other public figures, some of us are appalled. What is this inarticulate trash coming from the mouths of the anointed?

Indeed, people who speak clearly are often derided as elitists who "feel dey betta dan we." Trinis love to poke fun at the cornvunt accent because they see it as affected speech; so much so that the cornvunt accent is invariably misidentified. Standard English in some cases is excoriated as the legacy of the coloniser.

Today, I train people how to speak on camera for their businesses or professions. The target market for my services is outside this country; with good reason. The pool of local interest in developing that sort of skill is quite small; demand is tepid. It shouldn't be.

Arguably, speaking skills are more important than ever. In this fifth age of communication – the information epoch – digital platforms have revolutionised the way humans connect, inspire and articulate their vision for a new world.

Today, applicants for grant funding may have to create a video proposal to tap into international resources. Aspiring entrepreneurs may need to do a video presentation to convince potential investors of the value of a business concept. Professionals in multinationals are expected to do video conference calls with team members in different parts of the world.

Being able to string a coherent sentence together is a bare minimum skill. Anyone hoping to fit into this rapidly evolving world must be articulate enough to convey thoughts, ideas and expertise in a way that wins over audiences.

We don't need to look to developed countries for examples of powerful, influential speakers. Consider the way Barbados PM Mia Mottley's tongue forked lightning at the COP27 world leaders summit. Her impassioned, clearly-articulated presentation attracted broad international media coverage.

In TT we can't afford to continue to play small. Notwithstanding the failure of current leadership to serve as models of eloquence, each of us can and must cultivate an ambitious vision for the future of this country – a vision matched by our ability to articulate it.


"The power of speech, nah boy"

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