Sound and vision blog

23 June 2010

Voices of the UK - Poppy-show and kiss-teeth

One of the recordings we’ve been working on this month is of a group from the British Caribbean community in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire. Of the four speakers, the two younger ones were in their late thirties at the time of the recording and were born and bred in Huddersfield, while the two older ones were in their mid fifties and had been born in Jamaica but moved to Yorkshire in the 1960s. They speak quite a bit about patwa (Jamaican Creole) and how many of the younger generation they know don’t really use it any more, even though it’s heard a lot in lyrics to songs, and so on.

As part of the interview, the group are asked if they have any particular word that is shorthand for ‘a young person in cheap trendy clothes and jewellery’ – this is an item that is known to vary a lot across the UK. One of the men, Keith, says that he’d use ‘poppy-show’ which combines elements of foolishness or ridicule but also ostentation and a kind of vanity. ‘Poppy-show’ is in the Oxford English Dictionary and is believed to have originated in Scots English, but shown to be widely used in the way Keith suggests in Caribbean varieties of English.

However, in explaining to the BBC reporter how it’s used, Keith reveals that it would often be accompanied by ‘kissing your teeth’, which we abbreviate to (KST) in the extract below:

first you kiss your teeth you go, “(kst) look like poppy-show” you have to kiss your teeth first though “(kst)”

This sound is made by placing the front ‘blade’ of your tongue against the hard palate behind your top teeth, and drawing air inwards from the back of your mouth (more from the mouth than actually the lungs). It’s a little bit like one of the clicks found in the south African language Xhosa (video example here), but kiss-teeth is more drawn out. It’s also like the marker of disapproval or disappointment in English that is often represented as ‘tsk’ or ‘tut tut’ in the written language.

(KST) is actually a much more complex phenomenon than a mere ‘marker of disapproval’ for speakers of patwa, though. Peter Patrick and Esther Figueroa have written a serious linguistic appraisal of kiss-teeth exploring how it serves to “negotiate and enact moral standing” and express a wide variety of physical and emotional feeling. You can access their article on Peter Patrick’s webpage here.

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