Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Of Twanging and Shakespeare and Snowclones

I’m referring, of course, to the new catch phrase being bandied across borders, “Nobody canna cross it!”  Thanks to the viral (refix) video by Kevin-Sean Hamilton that simply glistens with creativity.  The phrase has its genesis with Clifton Brown (aka Cliff-twang Brown), during his interview with Dara Smith, the TVJ reporter.   The multi-use of the phrase has put me in mind of Shakespeare.  More anon.

The rains had come to Jamaica – some parts of the island feeling its effect more than others. The roads of Mavis Bank, linking Robertsfield and other communities in the parish of (East rural) St. Andrew, were masquerading as river courses. Needless to say, they were practically impassable – except for professionals, the likes of Clifton.  As he articulated the plight of the residents, and the help that they were able to provide to each other, viewers hung to his every word – mainly, perhaps, in unbelief!  For, Clifton was twanging.  Like, real live twanging!  On TV!  And he wasn’t joking! 

Although twanging is not new to the ear, it’s hardly ever done in such a public interview and for that length of time.  Of course a lot of people twang, or as Jamaicans are wont to say, “dem put on twang” or “dem a put on accent”.  But, more often than not, it’s not, y’know?  Aired!   It may be done in public, but, only those within earshot are treated to it.   The scripts in theatrical or made-for-TV productions in Jamaica may call for some kind of twanging – with the distinct intention of eliciting laughter! 

Twanging, to my mind, at any rate, is not the same as speaking with an (American – ‘cause it’s gotta be American or, ok, fine, Canadian) accent.   There are kids, for example, who’ve grown up in a Jamaican-American or Jamaican-Canadian household, who speak Jamaican patois (with a genuine "patois accent" - there's more than one) and English, (with a genuine American or Canadian accent).  They aren’t twanging.  Twanging – and feel free to enlighten me – is an affected way of speaking where one tries to speak with that other accent, where inflections and enunciations (and whatever else those steeped in linguistics will tell you) are added and subtracted randomly, to much comedic effect.

That is why that original news clip was so funny!  It’s a way of speaking that Jamaicans usually find funny, as the speaker seems to be trying too hard to “talk good” or “speaky spoky” - to fit in with those perceived to be of a "higher social calibre" who are known to "speak properly".   It’s a way of speaking that is sometimes intentionally used to generate laughter (especially when mocking the speech of another). Recall Miss Lou's "No Lickle Twang" and "Dry Foot Bwoy" that reference a possible no-win situation. (Contact me for translation if need be :-).  It’s a way of speaking used, as just mentioned, in certain productions for comic effect.

So, when we were treated to this way of speaking, in a situation where none of the above was applicable, it was both surprising and funny! He wasn’t speaking to elicit laughter; he wasn’t speaking as a character in some form of production (well, at that point, little did he know…).  And, he certainly wasn’t speaking to mock someone else.  As a matter of fact, during one of his interviews, either with Mutabaruka, or Smile Jamaica, Clifton admits that he invoked this way of speaking to try to talk like the University students (if he only knew…#justsayin.  Don’t shoot the messenger!)  That he hadn’t gone to University and was trying to copy them (that perceived "higher social calibre" thing).  

So, he was being real; he was being passionate and, in his inimitable Cliftonian style (yes, accorded his own distinction now), getting his point across.  I mean, don't you imagine that, although people have been twanging for so long, whenever you hear someone else put on a twang, somebody is going to be like, "Yuh pulling a Clifton man!"  In his delivery, "Nobody can cross it...it's only a fisherman or a fisherwoman" became "Nobody canna cross it...is only fishermain or a fisherwomain" and there were those who "can monij di wotah."

One of the things I admire about this recent development – apart from the publicity and kudos for Kevin-Sean Hamilton; the exposure wrt Mavis Bank and Robertsfield; Clifton Brown’s concern and his taking this whole publicity in stride (hope it doesn’t get too much for him); the “official Nobody Canna Cross It” dance and the “We Can Cross It! - Let’s Build a Bridge!” FB page – is how the phrase has been appropriated into popular culture. 

And that is what put me in mind of Shakespeare!  How often do we hear ourselves using phrases like: "One fell swoop" - Macbeth; "Lend me your ears" - Julius Caesar; "Much Ado About Nothing" (title) and so on.  If we changed any of those up a bit to, say, "In one fell scoop" - talking about ice-cream; "Much ado about...anything"; or "Romans, countrymen, lend me your cash!"  We'd get it!  Of course, Shakespeare is not the only one from whose bank of writing we have found ourselves making regular withdrawals (My word!  Where did that come from?)  Remember Bill Clinton's "It's the economy, stupid!" to grab a more recent one. How about, "It's the software, stupid!"  You get the point.  So, that’s where my mind went – to Shakespeare and the catch phrases or, as they morphed over time, to the more correct snowclones.

(A snowclone is defined as "a verbal formula that is adapted for re-use by changing only a few words, so that the allusion to the original phrase remains clear." (Dictionary.com)  Or, as Wikipedia puts it: A snowclone is a type of cliché and phrasal template originally defined as "a multi-use, customizable, instantly recognizable, time-worn, quoted or misquoted phrase or sentence that can be used in an entirely open array of different variants.") 

So, I've been hearing/reading about people using the phrase in different scenarios.  E.g., in talking about an exam, they go, "Can you cross it?" or about multi-tasking, "I can cross it!" Or, even on Twitter, a tweet about your rough day ending with #crossit, indicates that you managed it in spite of the odds.  This is something to smile about. After all, I think this one is going to be around for quite a while - never mind its unlikely beginning.

I imagine there will be highs and lows with all this, but, more than anything, it has brought much-needed laughter.  Clifton?  Keep your head up.  Handle this new-found publicity well.   I hope "they" hurry and build the bridge - and name it after you! 


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