Two Faces of White Jamaica: Cassidy v Cargill

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.

Perverse Pleasure

Morris Cargill

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.’

Unmasking Ignorance

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.

Professor Hubert Devonish (right), Sir Colvile Young, governor general of Belize (left) and Dr. Marta Dijkhoff, former minister of education in the Netherland Antilles. From the Gleaner website, Ian Allen/Photographer

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.


20 thoughts on “Two Faces of White Jamaica: Cassidy v Cargill

  1. You mean “translate this post from (standard) English” I hope. It certainly looks like English to me.

    I’d like to put in a word for Richard Allsopp’s magisterial (there is no other word for it Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage, which demonstrates the relatedness of the West Indian experience, as well as the richness of the Creole vernaculars.

  2. I am happy to hear that the conference went well (however this success is being defined). When I heard about it I was excited and wanted to attend, but my bubble was quickly burst when I saw the conference programme, which, for me, held no pull. I could not understand why it had been open to the public. This could be my own misunderstanding. But if it is not, I look forward to another conference in the future that will be more attractive to the ordinary person and not merely academics and policy-makers.

  3. As far as i know Cee this was a closed conference meant primarily for academics, researchers and policy-makers. There was only one public session at the end of the conference which was open to what you call ‘ordinary’ persons. Conferences designed for the group mentioned earlier and ones designed for the public are two completely different kinds of events with different objectives and different levels of discourse. You have to judge each one based on what the stated goals and audiences were. Demands that all conferences be aimed at the public would preclude the kinds of discussions that need to take place between people whose field of study and research this might be.

  4. Cargill must have been very influential, because his ideas are commonplace in Jamaica’s ‘educated’ classes.

    Profesa, yu dedikieshan a pie aaf—Mi wehn tel yu se mi sista an mi mada yuus tu lov riid yu aatikl dem ina di Gliina? Ina fimi likl kaana a di worl mi nuo se piipl a staat tingk likl difrent bout di patwa ting. Gwaan siem wie an mek Misa Kaagil ton ina im Griev. ki ki

  5. I read Cargill and found him to be as you have said.
    There is another of his kind currently on radio in Jamaica pretending to be other than he is.
    His Name is Legion, for they are many….

  6. Prof Cooper, you were wasting time attacking Mr. Cargill’s columns. It is the Gleaner’s editor who should have been under fire for effectively promoting Cargill and his sect. Morris Cargill, may he rest in peace, was a sheltered, boring sentimentalist who was out of touch with reality. I’m a bit confused by your use of the word “white”. Are you talking about ethnicity, skin colour or social class? I don’t believe there are any ethnically pure white Jamaicans, nor do I believe that a developing country can fool itself into thinking it has an upper class. There are people who like to stick together because of the perceived similarities in ethnicity. They like to talk about “black people” and their backwardness, because they are really too lazy to attack more salient issues affecting the country like the paucity of education and lack of a strong social welfare system, which result in corruption, crime, inefficiency and huge external debt. The ordinary man on the street doesn’t have time to process that fair skinned people come in a range of ethnicities, and even less time to separate that from the fact that these people had better access to education and had better networks for starting up and maintaining a strong advantage in business and politics. I think that “white” Jamaicans who had access to a scholastic education took advantage of the rampant ignorance in the wider population to command respect, deference on decision-making, and had a psychological advantage because of the perceptions of superiority which meant they were expected to do well in business and government. As for the writings of Mr. Cargill, I think you should consider him to be a Jamaican who was too stubborn to set aside his bittersweet memories of La Gran Bretagna and accept his country on its own terms, warts and all.

  7. @Annie: Not at all “demanding” or suggesting that all conferences be open to the public. I called the JLU and the person I spoke with (whose name was down as one of the two contact persons for the conference) told me it was open to the public. After I looked at the programme and called back for clarification, she then told me that not all sessions were. I have no difficulty with the JLU or UWI having a closed conference, however, I would expect the promotion to be quite different. I first heard about the conference when I saw Prof Devonish being interviewd on TVJ. I came away with a quite different impression from that which I got once I’d seen the programme.

  8. I stumbled on your column and blog while checking out the Gleaner as I occasionally do. I appreciate your work and comments about Morris Cargill and Frederic Cassidy. Mr. Cargill’s attitudes were all too typical of the white Jamaicans (with a few exceptions) I knew growing up there (as a white Jamaican) in the 50’s and 60’s. Mr. Cassidy’s ideas were considered radical; I remember one of my black teachers at DeCarteret admonishing us for using “bad English” when patois was spoken. Louise Bennett helped forge the way of course; clearly more work needs to be done. The vestiges of Euro-centrism remains. In reflecting on my privileged white childhood in colonial Jamaica, I have come to realize sadly that I had more in common with apartheid era white South Africans in the way my skin color protected me. I could get on the number 6 bus in Barbican by myself at age 7 and go to Cross Roads, my parents knowing that I would be safe. I’m not so sure that would have been the case had I been black. So, like South Africa, Jamaica needs to also come to terms with its legacy of white privilege and the vestiges that remain; honoring the language of the people is a good place to start.

  9. But, where do we sink from here, as it is clear that is really what we want to do.
    By the way, Edmund Drankgkro means, head-man John Crow.

  10. Pingback: The More Things Change … « Talking Tongue(s)

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