I don’t have the time right now to translate this post into Jamaican. Sorry to disappoint those of you who look forward to reading Jamaican. But I’ll do it for next week when I’ll be under a little less pressure.
Frederic Cassidy and Morris Cargill were white Jamaicans whose responses to the culture of the black majority reveal radically different mindsets. Morris Cargill suffered from a terrible superiority complex. He was an opinionated newspaper columnist and lawyer who had absolutely no respect for local intellectual traditions.
Frederic Cassidy was a gentleman-scholar who contributed in great measure to the academic life of the Caribbean and far beyond. As a professor of Linguistics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison in the 1960s, Cassidy led the research project that resulted in the publication of the multi-volume Dictionary of American Regional English.
For more than forty years, Morris Cargill used his column in the colonialist Gleaner to batter black people. He couldn’t have gotten away with it in the U.S., Britain or any mature democracy. But this is Jamaica. Racism is cute. Cargill took perverse pleasure in preaching the gospel of the natural inferiority of African people to Europeans.
Cargill, ever provoking, once wrote a newspaper column headlined, “Corruption of Language is no Cultural Heritage.” He seemed to be claiming that African peoples and our languages are sub-human. And the Caribbean Creoles that developed out of the many African languages brought over in the heads of our ancestors are nothing but monkey talk.
I was so vexed when I read that column, I had to reply: “Cho, Misa Cargill, Rispek Juu!’” I decided to answer Cargill in Jamaican, the very language he was dissing. And I used the writing system for the language that had been developed by Professor Cassidy. A horse of a different colour.
A Labour of Love
Frederic Cassidy celebrated the verbal creativity of the black people among whom he grew up. His book, Jamaica Talk: Three Hundred Years of the English Language in Jamaica, which was jointly published in 1961 by the Institute of Jamaica and Macmillan in London, is a labour of love.
It is true that the subtitle of the book plays down the African elements in our language. By the way, I prefer the nationalist label ‘Jamaican,’ rather than the academic ‘Creole’ or the much more popular ‘patwa.’ But whatever name you call it, the language clearly has African features, which Cassidy does acknowledge.
In collaboration with the equally distinguished linguist, Robert LePage, Cassidy produced The Dictionary of Jamaican English. Published in 1967, the dictionary is still not widely known here. The prohibitive cost was a factor.
Thankfully, as a result of my initiative, Cambridge University Press sold the paperback rights to the University of the West Indies Press. The cost of the dictionary has been greatly reduced. Every single Jamaican school can now afford to put The Dictionary of Jamaican English in its library.
Fulling the Space
The day after my response to Cargill’s wicked column was published, I got a whole heap of complaints from plenty people who hadn’t bothered to read the pronunciation guide to the Cassidy writing system that I’d included. So they were frustrated. As Cargill himself put it in his off-the-cuff reply, they ‘couldn’t make head or tale of the maze of phonetics.’
But what upset them even more was the fact that their children could read the text so easily. That’s not hard to understand. The Cassidy writing system is phonetic and all the children did was to apply commonsense to the strange-looking text. As Mr. Anthony Sewell, the postman in the neighbourhood where I used to live, put it so brilliantly, ‘it full the space of our real African language.’
One of fascinating features of the Dictionary of Jamaican English is its account of the origin of the words it defines. Or, as Professor Cassidy himself says, “A word is an encyclopaedia. It tells you about the people who use it, where they come from and what their lives are like.”
Many of our Jamaican words come straight from West Africa. Asham. The original word in Twi, one of the languages of Ghana, is ‘o-siam.’ Look it up in the Dictionary if you don’t know the meaning! Then you might think that the word ‘mirazmi’ is African. You’ll discover that it’s actually Latin, ‘marasmus.’ And, would you believe it, the word ‘cashew’ entered the English language via Jamaica.
The historic conference on “Language Policy in the Creole-Speaking Caribbean” that was convened last week by Professor Hubert Devonish, Head of the Jamaican Language Unit at the University of the West Indies, Mona, was a huge success.
The conference brought together, from across the region, ministers of government (present and past), representatives of various educational and cultural institutions, civil society activists and linguists, of course, on a mission to spread the word on the power of our local languages.
Blissful ignorance – of the Morris Cargill variety – often masquerades as fact. Or playful satire. Genuine scholarship reveals the true face hidden beneath the grinning mask.