Even God Speaks ‘Patwa’

If God, the Supreme Judge, doesn’t speak ‘Patwa’, I’m really sorry for all those people in Jamaica and abroad who appeal to Him/Her every single day and night for divine guidance.  Yes, my God is both male and female; but that’s another story.

The prayers of the faithful often sound like this:  Du, Maasa Jiizas!  Memba di pikni dem mi a fait op wid.  No mek dem get iina no chrobl.  Yes, Laad.  An yu si di bad briid man mi de wid.  Du, no bada mek notn apn tu im.  Bad az tings bi, mi uda neva laik fi si im get wat im dizorv.  Tings naa ron so rait.  Bot mi ha fi memba we wi a kom fram.  Im did gi mi som swiit-swiit liriks wen im dida luk mi. Mi ha fi tek di gud wid di bad.

The man’s prayer might sound something like this: Laad Gad!  Yu si di uman we yu gi mi fi liv wid! Maasa Jiizas, wa mi du mek yu bring dong dat de kraasiz pan mi?  A no likl chrai mi chrai wid di bad-main uman.  Mi memba dem lang taim abak wen mi a put aagyument tu ar.  Di uman gwaan laik se bota kudn melt iina ar mout.  An nou, yu fi ier di briid a kos shi dis a kos mi.  Laad, tek di kies an lef di pilo.

That’s the writing system for our language developed by the Jamaican linguist Frederick Cassidy.  At first, it looks hard to figure out.  But, in fact, it’s quite easy once you get the hang of it.  The Cassidy system uses the same symbols for the same sounds all the time.  Not like English spelling which is quite irregular, or chaka-chaka, as I prefer to call it.

Just think of the range of pronunciations of ‘ough.’  Wikipedia describes it as “the most absurd English letter pattern,” noting that “the English language accords it nine different sound-symbol relationships, each of which bears no phonetic resemblance to the letters themselves.”

So here goes.  Or as, Wikipedia puts it, “The madness in full”:

▪               through = “oo”

▪               though, dough = “oh”

▪               thought, ought = “aw”

▪               bough, plough = “ow”

▪               rough, enough = “uff”

▪               Scarborough = “uh”

▪               cough = “off”

▪               lough, hough = “ock”

▪               hiccough = “up”

Wikipedia gives a lovely sentence using up all nine pronunciations:  “A rough-coated, dough-faced, thoughtful ploughman strode through the streets of Scarborough; after falling into a slough, he coughed, houghed, and hiccoughed.”

Chaka-chaka version

Here’s a chaka-chaka version of the Jamaican prayers for those who are completely lost.  First, the woman:  Do, Massa Jesus!  Memba di pickney dem mi a fight up wid.  No mek dem get eena no trouble.  Yes, Lord.  An yu see di bad breed man mi deh wid.  Do, no bother mek nothing happen to im.  Bad as tings be, mi woulda never like see im get wat im deserve.  Tings nah run so right.  But mi ha fi memba weh wi a come from.  Im did gi mi some sweet-sweet lyrics when im dida look mi. Mi ha fi tek di good wid di bad.

And then the man: Lord God!  Yu see di uman weh yu gi mi fi live wid! Massa Jesus, wa mi do mek yu bring down dat de crosses pon mi?  A no lickle try mi try wid di bad-mind uman.  Mi memba dem long time aback when mi a put argument to her.  Di uman gwaan like seh butter couldn’t melt eena her mouth.  An now, yu fi hear di breed a cuss she dis a cuss mi.  Lord, teck di case an lef di pillow.

Incidentally, ‘chaka-chaka’ is one of those words in the Jamaican language that comes straight from West Africa.  The Dictionary of Jamaican English gives two languages as the possible source:  ‘Tyaka’ in the Ge language and ‘tsaka’ in Ewe, both meaning ‘to mix or to be mixed.’  In Jamaican, chaka-chaka now means disorderly, irregular, a perfect description of English spelling.

‘Patwa’ Bible

God not only speaks ‘Patwa.’  S/He’s writing the Bible in Patwa.  The Bible tells us that long ago holy men wrote down what God directed them to write.  I keep wondering if no holy women got that message from God.  Anyhow, the holy men wrote the Bible and many of us think it’s a direct transcript of God’s exact words.

These days, God is again telling holy people to write the Bible; but now in Patwa.  I don’t particularly like ‘Patwa’ as the name of our Jamaican language.  It’s much too generic.  I prefer ‘Jamaican’ which signals cultural specificity.  But because ‘Patwa’ is the popular name of the language, I still use it.

The Bible Society of the West Indies recently published the Book of Luke, translated into Jamaican.  The title is Jiizas:  Di Buk We Luuk Rait Bout Im (Jesus:  Di book Weh Luke Write Bout Im).  The book comes with a CD.

The translation has been a long time in the making; and not without resistance in some backward quarters.  A lot of pious Christians think that the ‘Patwa’ Bible project is pure nonsense, if not downright sacrilege.  Some of them say they hope Jesus will come again before the task is completed.  They fervently believe that ‘Patwa’ is not holy enough for the Bible.  The language is much too vulgar.

Imagine that!  Even God speaks ‘Patwa’.  And ordinary mortals feel they are too good to read the Bible in ‘Patwa.’  What a thing if and when they get to heaven!  I guess they will ask for a transfer to hell if God should dare welcome them in this way:  ‘Kom iin, kom iin!  Mi glad fi si unu!’

Her Honour’s Better Judgement

I must tell the other side of the story of my trials and triumphs in the court of Her Honour.  On matters of the law, her judgement proved impeccable.  This, I readily concede, ought to be the primary consideration in assessing the quality of a magistrate’s rulings.  Language and dress aside!

I ended up in court because I refused to pay for defective goods. I took the advice of my lawyer friends who assured me that it was not essential to be represented by counsel in civil cases.   More to the point, taking up my case would not be a good use of their time since the disputed sum was relatively small.

So I represented myself. Long ago, I’d planned to become a lawyer.  In the 1970’s, I taught literature at a small private college in rural Massachusetts. This was a Seventh-Day Adventist institution and with my long-held ‘radical’ views, it was not an entirely comfortable situation.         Many of the students came from the Caribbean via New York City.  Others lived in relatively unsophisticated communities in New England.  I will never forget the straight-laced young man from upstate Maine who refused to take a fiction course because, as he put it, fiction was all lies.  I was quite happy to encourage him to consider a truthful alternative.

All the same, I was lucky to be teaching at all.  Those days, as now, the job market in academia was very bad.  My classmates at the University of Toronto where I was doing my Ph.D. were envious of my job, which I snapped up even before I’d finished writing the dissertation.

But after almost five years of restriction in a fundamentalist Christian culture, I knew I had to ‘bruck out.’  I took some students in a course on Caribbean literature on a field trip to Boston to see The Harder They Come and was duly reprimanded by the Academic Dean.  Those days, good Adventists didn’t go to the movies.

Practising law without a license

So I decided to go to law school. I was accepted by my first choice, Georgetown.  Soon after, I found out about a job at the University of the West Indies, Mona.  I got it and decided to come home instead of abandoning literature for law.

I’ve occasionally regretted that decision, but not for long.  And, I suppose, law is in my blood.  My brother, Kingsley, and my sister, Donnette, are both lawyers.  And as Donnette mischievously likes to say, I’m always practising law without a license.

So here was my big moment to prove my skills as a bogus lawyer in the Resident Magistrate’s court!  The facts of the case were quite straightforward, unlike the dodgy operator with whom I was contending.  Believe it or not, the plaintiff conceded that the windows he’d supplied, as well as the installation, were both substandard.  And he agreed to refund my deposit.  But he would do so only if I allowed him to remove the faulty windows within a month or so.  Otherwise, I would have to pay for them!

Since he had spent almost five months on a job that should have been completed in about three weeks, I considered his proposal completely wicked and refused to accept it.  I needed time to decide on alternative windows and then to have them manufactured.  Refusing to bow to reason, the unconscionable man proceeded to sue me for breach of contract.

Arrogant ruling class

The case was first ‘mentioned’ and then after several false starts was finally heard.  Since I speak English, Her Honour had no problem communicating with me.  Because I wasn’t a ‘real-real’ lawyer, she patiently walked me through procedural matters.  For this I was most grateful.

And Her Honour did have a sense of humour.  When the plaintiff’s lawyer tried to smuggle into evidence documents that had not been properly filed, I immediately objected.  The judge laughed and remarked that I had quickly learnt from observing the operations of the court.  In an earlier case that morning, she had refused to accept dubious documents.

Since I had not managed to file my own documents, I offered to accept the plaintiff’s if his lawyer would return the favour.  We came to an amicable agreement.  I was able to enter into evidence pictures of the defective windows, pointing out the fact that some of them could not be fully closed.

The plaintiff mulishly insisted that the images were fraudulent.  The windows were actually open and I was pretending that they were supposedly closed.  Her Honour grandly cut to the chase.  She moved the court to my house so that she could examine the windows!

Leahcim Semaj

My chief witness and photographer of the windows, Dr. Leahcim Semaj, was amazed that the plaintiff would embarrass himself by allowing the court to be relocated when he knew full well that the photos were accurate.  It must have been the desperation of a drowning man; or the complete arrogance of the Jamaican ruling class.

We later returned to court to hear Her Honour’s judgement.  It was faultless – and not because she ruled in my favour.   In a 4-page document, she carefully delineated the legal principles that guided her decision:  “The duty to provide goods reasonably fit for the purpose is a strict one; it is no defence that all care was taken.” Furthermore, “a contract which is rescinded by agreement is completely discharged and cannot be revived.”

All the same, Her Honour’s failings on matters of language and dress remain a troubling issue.  But her judgemental posture is not unique.  It appears to be the norm in Jamaica’s elitist legal system.  And that’s a disturbing indictment of our fundamentally unjust society.