What My Nanny Left Me
How did a Jewish boy from New Jersey end up speaking with a Jamaican accent? It’s an enduring inheritance from a woman who raised me.
My consonants are clear, if over-pronounced, with T and D ticking in tandem and spitting like the greasy hands of a grandfather clock. Flat vowels, like deep plunks of rocks in Caribbean coves, irrigate my voice.
Dezna was my closest childhood friend, and moments we spent over cereal and tea, the walk to the bus stop on spring mornings, the games we invented with tennis balls and the geometric bends of my house’s shingled roof, allowed her to pour into my ear the West Indian time signature, the syntactic steel drum. From her taunting calls at wrestlers (we got into WWF together, favoring the Undertaker and under-the-radar uber-Jew Randy Savage), tempered with afternoon warnings directed at the television during The Young and the Restless (“Dohn go in der, girl?”), I have retained, in the most instinctive elements of my speech, the diminished final T, the rhythmic jump, the last word of a statement hurling up interrogatively toward an unnecessary question mark. We share, by osmosis, this sing-song accent, harmonized in a sort of Haftorah-trope progression, incanted in pedal-held beats. The accent is not merely Dezna’s fault, but her phylogenic begetting, the prolongation of her most amazing feature.
My Jamaican way of speaking is perhaps, strictly speaking, less an accent than intonation or rhythm. If you’d listened to Dezna and to me, our lilts would sound the same, our reduced O’s identical. She kept diphthongs beautifully closed and flat, saying “cow” or “now” with an almost Irish brogue. Instead of “Ross and I,” she would say “Ruhss and m’self.” “This thing” became “Dis ting.” At bathtime, “dirty” was somehow “dutty” in our Jam-Down speech. “Somebody” was “samdi,” and “you all” became “uno.” Dezna also colored her speech with incorrect colloquialisms to spice up her syntax. My own speech is moistened, colored, more muscular because of the variety of sounds to which I was exposed.
In fact, she exposed me to more than language. My whole upbringing spliced together a Jamaican cultural immersion alongside my American Jewish upbringing; with all the johnnycake dumplings and ginger beer and salted codfish she fed us, it was almost Study Abroad Montego Bay. But like any study program, it had to end. In 1999, I was bar mitzvahed—no longer a child, no longer in need of a nanny—and Dezna moved out.
Later, when I lived for a year in Crown Heights, that smattering of Orthodox Jews and Caribbean refugees, I felt the Brooklyn neighborhood was ideal for my binary character. Though I consented to the be-payosed lulav squad who tracked me down and made me shake to reaffirm God’s existence, though I attended a service at the Chabad-Lubavitch mecca at 770 Eastern Parkway and went to Shabbat dinners in the neighborhood, I found just as much connection eating jerk chicken at The Islands or from some random beef-patty joints. I moved seamlessly through Crown Heights. After all, my poufy Jew-fro, standing on end as if Kafka had gotten friendly with an electrical outlet, could have put me into either of two categories: New Age rabbi with a Samson complex, or reggae star extraordinaire.
Dezna and I remained in contact. When I spoke to her over the phone, a slight smile of pride appeared on my lips when I heard in our dialogue the clangor of a Jon Connu troupe, the syncopated Caribbean rhythms, the swished vowels of our One Love accent woven into our language.
And so it was terrifying to stand over her hospital bed in Newark, as I did the fall before last, and see my childhood savior supported through an IV feeding tube. Hard to call her name and have her not hear through some deep sleep, unable to voice any response. But that voice, the Jamaican voice that is my most prized asset when I greet the world, carries on her memory within me. It is the voice that sang Kaddish for Dezna when she died, and the one that maintains the fluidity, the Jewish-Jamaican encoding with which I so proudly make my pronunciations.
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