Half Caste by John Agard


Excellent for teaching metaphor. Good, too, because it breaks the rules of standard English spelling and punctuation, and you can get the students discussing why Agard’s done this – indicates that we are rule bound, ie class bound; that there are set modes of behaviour, ways of life, if you like, and are expected to accept this. We’re told that there is only ‘one’ way, but in fact, this isn’t true. There are many ways, all valid. Agard’s writing is no less understandable for being non standard, and, according to what we are taught, ‘wrong’. You could get the students to mark the work, first of all, as if they are school teachers looking for errors. They should come up with missing full stops and capital letters, and spelling which mirrors pronunciation – the spoken mode. It also mirrors one particular type of pronunciation, Black English. BUT NOT ALL THE TIME! Check the start of the poem. And the last line. The narrator appears to be able to speak two languages, standard and non standard English. This begs the question, is he twice as able, or half as able? Twice as much of a human being, or only half as much, being neither white nor black, or both white and black? Back to the speech v writing idea. Speech is our first language, not writing. Writing is the encoding of speech. You may want to get them to engage in how writing is the result of privilege, of education. Also, that standard English is in fact, just one dialect of the many dialects of English. It became the standard, simply because it was the dialect of the south east, the London, Oxford, Cambridge triangle. Caxton, when he was deciding which dialect to settle on in producing printed texts with his press – the gadget which absolutely put the south eastern dialect in front position, chose this because there was going to be more business from the courts and the universities. This in turn, led to Samuel Johnson, who did more than anyone else to standardise English spelling, with the publication of his dictionary in, I think, 1750-ish, also chose a spelling which reflected the pronunciation of the dialect of the south east triangle. That’s it in a nutshell, how standard English spelling and received pronunciation came to be regarded as correct English, and all other versions, inferior variants.
You might like to play them some examples of accents from other parts of the uk, just for a bit of fun, and ask them their opinions on the different sounds. Like you could replicate the experiments which have been done to check if Liverpool, Geordie and Birmingham sounds really are unpleasant to the ear, or if it’s a sociological judgement.
 There’s loads to be found on choice of imagery  Picasso and Tchaikovsky – high culture, not the low culture generally synonymous with Black culture. And the descriptions of parts of the human body give that sense that our language is an integral part of us. Agard does a great deal to get us to hear the poem, even to have the sense that we are in the conversation, by asking us questions, arguably rhetorical ones and shaping the poem to look like an excerpt of a conversation. Then there’s all the sound stuff, the phonology – metre, rhythm, alliteration, consonance, assonance,

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