Language and Immigration in Chariandy's Brother

by Philip Swieton
August 18, 2022

David Chariandy's second novel Brother was published in 2017 to critical acclaim, collecting the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize in 2017 and the Toronto Book Award and Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize in 2018. The novel is narrated by Michael, a Canadian-born man reflecting upon his childhood in a Trinidadian household in 1980s Scarborough, Ontario. These reflections are mediated by memories of his late elder brother Francis, a precocious boy who gets embroiled in the city's delinquent scene. By retracing these childhood experiences, Brother illuminates how Scarborough's linguistic identity was (and continues to be) in a state of constant flux by the "heated language of the changing nation" − or, the tensions that arise when new generations of Canadian immigrants meet Western European settler notions of what it means to speak English 'correctly'. Brother is, in one facet, a testimony to the ways that a vernacular develops within a social context, and the colonial attitudes that linger towards different English dialects.

Francis interprets this shift in accent as a sort of moral victory...

Michael introduces the Scarborough of his youth by sketching something of its cultural history. Prior to the influx of families moving into it, when it was still a sparsely inhabited city, it was referred to as 'Scarberia'. Then, the city grew larger and more diverse; Michael rhapsodizes about it as a suburb that had "mushroomed up and yellowed, browned, and blackened into life”. Resuscitated by the many cultures that inhabit it, this new Scarborough was given more fitting nicknames, such as 'Scarlem' or 'Scarbistan'. Just as these sobriquets were reflections of Scarborough's cultural diversity, so too its vernacular expanded to reflect elements of new languages − adopting, for example, the Jamaican slang term rudeboy as a particular term of endearment.

Despite this increasingly diversified vernacular, the Scarborough youth carries with it preconceptions of a 'proper' way to speak English; these preconceptions are exemplified in Michael and Francis' varying attitudes towards their mother's accent. A Trinidadian immigrant, their mother speaks English bidialectically. The language history of Trinidad primarily includes a Trinidadian Standard English (which would have at the time been based on British English) as well as a Trinidadian Creole, and Michael and Francis' mother alternates between the two in speech. Whichever dialect she speaks in, then, respectively affects how her authority is viewed by her children. Michael notes that his mother's primary accent, at its most authoritative and threatening, comes from being "schooled harshly in Queen's English". This positioning of Queen's English as a figure of authority hints at the colonial history of the English language in Trinidad, with Queen's English coming to be perceived as the most 'faithful' dialect of the language.

However, when she slips out of her Queen's English and into her Trinidadian Creole, her authority loses its gravity to her children. In a scene where Michael’s mother finds out that Francis has been consorting with the wrong sorts of people, she insists that no son of hers will be a criminal. At her pronunciation of this, Francis laughs: "Maybe it was the way Mother pronounced the word, briefly stepping out of the Queen's English and into the music of her Trinidadian accent. Cri-mi-nal." Francis interprets this shift in accent as a sort of moral victory because he internalizes the implicit attitudes towards various English dialects and the 'proper' way to speak the language. His mother's voice, once a Queen's English that articulated "threats mined from the deepest hells of history", is now to Francis something comical in its musicality; that superimposed model of ideal English has been lifted, and with it the authority Francis' mother carries over him.  

Brother, then, shows that while language is itself unstable, and its change inevitable, there are nevertheless socially entrenched attitudes that follow it − attitudes which conflate particular dialects with corresponding codes, mores, and judgments.