Reggae: the new Rosetta Stone

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It was a warm winter night in the Peruvian rainforest as we stumbled off the boat and back to our cabins on the shore of the Tambopata River. The boat’s motor was turned off, its gentle whirring giving way to the tweeting and chirping of an enormous and endless array of invisible creatures, each as mysterious to us as we were to them. Walking alongside us, our tour guide, Gustavo, was humming a Bob Marley song.

“I love Bob Marley,” Gustavo told us. “That’s how I learned to speak English. By listening to Bob Marley songs.”

While I was comforted to know that the man leading us through the jungle was familiar not only with the local flora and fauna but also with the undisputed master of reggae music, I questioned his strategy for learning English. After all, Marley’s songs are rife with nonstandard grammar, owing in large part to his use of Jamaican slang. How would someone like Gustavo know that “no woman, no cry” is not a commonly used phrase?

Even as a native English speaker and someone whose job it is to eat, live and breathe grammar, I have had trouble understanding the meaning of Bob Marley lyrics. It was only recently that I realized that the title of the aforementioned song does not mean “don’t cry if you don’t have a woman,” but rather is a condolence offered to a woman: “no, woman, don’t cry.”

But the real problem here goes far beyond the scope of reggae music. English, as it is spoken today, is full of slang terms and figures of speech that go in and out of style at an alarmingly fast rate. A few years ago, I would not have been caught dead using “hella” in everyday conversation, but now I use it, well, hella. (And it’s not just the move to NorCal that has caused this transition.)

Look at the phrase “would not have been caught dead” in that last sentence. To an English speaker, it’s a common phrase with a clear meaning. But to someone learning the language, phrases such as that one are one of the many things (along with nonsensical spelling rules, countless synonyms and plenty of irregular verbs) that make the world’s most common second language so damn hard to learn.

So, while studying Bob Marley lyrics may not be the best method for learning proper English, they are at least reflective of the way people actually speak: improperly. And while the slang terms he uses may or may not be congruous with those used by most English speakers today, it’s not as if there’s a better way to learn that all-important slang — Urban Dictionary will only get you so far.

Gustavo, then, may have been onto something with his strategy. No matter how you slice it, elements of nonstandard English such as slang and idioms (“no matter how you slice it” being one) will always be confusing and difficult to learn. So you might as well enjoy some reggae while you’re at it.

Contact Nick Schwartz at [email protected].