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Rihanna and the politicization of English

The first time I listened to “Work,” I was ridiculously excited. I was happy primarily because its release meant Rihanna’s highly anticipated eighth album was soon to follow. I also enjoyed the Caribbean dancehall style of the single and hoped that the other album tracks would draw on her Bajan roots.

But as much as I enjoyed the song, I struggled to understand all the lyrics. As “Work” gained popularity, it was obvious that many other people had the same problem. However, while I shared a small laugh with my roommates about our miscomprehension, the song had apparently left others seriously disgruntled.

Music reviews praising the single overall commented on the track’s resemblance to gibberish. The most popular comments on the music video made similar jabs, sarcastically wondering when the English version would be released. Acoustic covers received praise, being declared superior in sound and comprehensibility.

I understand people’s frustration. Rihanna sings “Work” in patois, an English-based creole language. I had been able to understand some of the song’s lyrics because I grew up with my Jamaican father, who spoke patois often. Even so, there were some phrases I struggled to grasp. Too curious to guess what the words meant, I searched for the song’s lyrics on Google and finally understood the full narrative of “Work.”

Unfortunately, people often forget about the existence of useful tools like Google. Rather than take a few minutes to look up the song, people decided it was unacceptable that they didn’t immediately understand it — that it was not an English accommodated to their ears and, consequently, an unacceptable English.

The sociopolitical nature of the English language has existed for centuries, and I have had a number of personal experiences based on linguistic policing, both self-imposed and imposed by others. Most of my hometown’s families, in suburban southeast Louisiana, have lived there for generations. However, this is not my family’s narrative — both my parents immigrated to the United States from Ethiopia. Most people are very welcoming and curious when they realize this, but my middle school experiences were less illustrious. My classmates would mock my mom after hearing her Ethiopian accent. Their comments cut into my sensitive 12-year-old heart. It was the first time I remember feeling ashamed of my heritage. They told me my mom talked funny. What was funny is that I didn’t realize she had an accent at all — she sounded like my mother. She sounded like home.

When I left for Princeton four years ago, I quickly learned to self-police my southern colloquialisms that Saint Rose had left me. I used “y’all” as sparingly as possible. I have a slight, yet noticeable accent when I’m angry or upset, and only my closest friends have been privy to these moments. Though they appreciate the southern lilts, I am still abashed when they draw attention to it. And while I have grown more comfortable with black and southern vernacular overall, I still code-switch based on the room in which I’m standing. Some of this is a necessary formality. Yet, a large part of this behavior is being told that this is a substandard form of English.

Modern English doesn’t belong to any one person or country. Centuries of colonization, occupation and globalization have made it a language spoken in all corners of the world. It’s fine not to understand someone’s English because of accents or hybridity with other languages. It’s even alright to be annoyed that you are not in a position to easily understand. But it is cruel to mock someone who is making a serious effort to speak a constantly changing language like English. It is ironic to do so when we, as native English speakers, misuse words and grammar every day.

The Caribbean, and several countries beyond it, has been transforming the English language for centuries, changing it through their own unique linguistic traditions and making a new one from it. Your comprehension is not the responsibility of these countries. If you want to understand, the burden lies upon you to, well, put in some work.

Lea Trusty is a politics major from Saint Rose, La. She can be reached at