Tek Di Obeah Offa St. Thomas!

Two spelling systems are used for the Jamaican language below. The first, which I call ‘chaka-chaka’, is based on English spelling. The second, ‘prapa-prapa’, is the specialist system designed by the Jamaican linguist Frederic Cassidy. It has been updated by the Jamaican Language Unit at the University of the West Indies, Mona. After the two Jamaican versions, there’s an English translation.



51IMF01L6bL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_A long time now wi a call St Thomas ‘di obeah parish’. An obeah a no good sinting. Hear wa Dictionary of Jamaican English seh bout obeah: “The practice of malignant magic as widely known in Jamaica. Its origins are African.” An ‘malignant’ no pretty. It come from one Latin word weh mean ‘malicious’. Keep up malice. Bad mind an grudgeful. So a dat wi tink bout all a di people dem from St Thomas?

By di way, a long time now Cambridge University Press put out dat deh Jamaican English dictionary. Inna 1967! An fi wi owna University of the West Indies Press buy di right fi sell it. From 2006. An all now, plenty a wi no know bout di dictionary. A fi who fa fault? Ministry of Education. Ministry suposen fi put dat deh book eena every school library eena di whole a Jamaica. Di pikni dem fi learn bout dem language.

Den di title a di dictionary a bait an switch. A no directly English it a deal wid. A fi wi Jamaican language. But dem deh time when Frederic Cassidy an Robert LePage did a write di dictionary, it did suit dem fi call fi wi language ‘Jamaican English’. Like seh fi wi language a one dialect a English. Wa dem did waan show a how wi change up English eena Jamaica.

But plenty a di word dem eena di dictionary a no English at all, at all. Tek, for instance, ‘obeah’. Dictionary of Jamaican English tell wi seh it come from ‘ubio’. Dat a Efik, wan African language. An a di said same bad meaning: “a thing or mixture of things, put in the ground, as a charm to cause sickness or death”. Dat wicked fi true. But dat a no di whole a di story. Di odder side a obeah a myal. An a dat tek off di obeah. Same like how di blood a Jesus save from sin! Mi know seh plenty Christian naa go like hear dat. But a true.


So a how St Thomas turn eena di obeah parish? An no figet myal! After Emancipation, bout 10,000 African did come a Jamaica fi work. Same like di Indian an di Chiney people dem. An dem did go live a St Thomas. Dem did come from Central Africa an dem bring fi dem culture. An dem keep it up. All like kumina.

518R3CSPW3L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Professor Maureen Warner-Lewis from Trinidad did teach a University of the West Indies, Mona, fi more than 30 year. She write one book, Central Africa In the Caribbean. An one a di subject she study a kumina. An she interview one kumina queen, Miss Queenie, bout myal. Hear wa Miss Queenie seh:

“Myal is de ting dey call a spirit where you’ head ‘pin roun’ an you drop an’ you ‘kin pupalick ‘pon you neck, you see? Dat a myal spirit. Dat a bongo myal spirit which all de hol’ African dem – de dead African dem dem come roun’ an’ dem lick you all a’ you’ headside an’ ride you ‘pon you’ neck an’ you drop. You see? Dat dere mean to say myal hol’ you now.”

So a di myal spirit deh pon St Thomas mek plenty a wi tink seh di parish backward. An wi naa see seh St Thomas a one pretty-pretty parish. So much development a gwaan a west. An wi naa look east. A time wi open wi yai an see di good-good myal spirit eena St Thomas.


A lang taim nou wi a kaal St Thomas ‘di uobiya parish’. An uobiya a no gud sinting. Ier wa Dictionary of Jamaican English se bout uobiya: “The practice of malignant magic as widely known in Jamaica. Its origins are African.” An ‘malignant’ no priti. It kom fram wan Latin wod we miin ‘malicious’. Kip op malis. Bad main an grojful. So a dat wi tingk bout aal a di piipl dem fram St Thomas?

Bai di wie, a lang taim nou Cambridge University Press put out dat de Jamaican English dikshaneri. Ina 1967! An fi wi uona University of the West Indies Press bai di rait fi sel it. From 2006. An aal nou, plenti a wi no nuo bout di dikshaneri. A fi huu fa faalt? Ministry of Education. Ministry supuozen fi put dat de buk iina evri skuul laibri iina di uol a Jamieka. Di pikni dem fi laan bout dem langgwij.

Den di taikl a di dikshaneri a biet an swich. A no dairekli Ingglish it a diil wid. A fi wi Jamiekan langgwij. Bot dem de taim wen Frederic Cassidy an Robert LePage did a rait di dikshaneri, it did suut dem fi kaal fi wi langgwij ‘Jamaican English’. Laik se fi wi langgwij a wan daiyalek a Ingglish. Wa dem did waahn shuo a ou wi chienj op Ingglish iina Jamieka.

Bot plenti a di wod dem iina di dikshaneri a no Ingglish at aal, at aal. Tek, far instans, ‘uobiya’. Dictionary of Jamaican English tel wi se it kom fram ‘ubio’. Dat a Efik, wan Afrikan langgwij. An a di sed siem bad miinin: “a thing or mixture of things, put in the ground, as a charm to cause sickness or death”. Dat wikid fi chruu. Bot dat a no di uol a di stuori. Di ada said a uobiya a maiyal. An a dat tek aaf di uobiya. Siem laik ou di blod a Jesus siev fram sin! Mi nuo se plenti Chrischan naa go laik ier dat. Bot a chruu.


So a ou St Thomas ton iina di uobiya parish? An no figet maiyal! Aafta Imansipieshan, bout ten tousan Afrikan did kom a Jamieka fi wok. Siem laik di Indiyan an di Chaini piipl dem. An dem did go liv a St Thomas. Dem did kom fram Sentral Afrika an dem bring fi dem kolcha. An dem kip it op. Aal laik kumina.

kuminab20060330STProfessor Maureen Warner-Lewis fram Chrinidad did tiich a University of the West Indies, Mona, fi muor dan torti ier. Shi rait wan buk, Central Africa In the Caribbean. An wan a di sobjek shi stodi a kumina. An shi intavyuu wan kumina kwiin, Miss Queenie, bout maiyal. Ier wa Miss Queenie se:

“Myal is de ting dey call a spirit where you’ head ‘pin roun’ an you drop an’ you ‘kin pupalick ‘pon you neck, you see? Dat a myal spirit. Dat a bongo myal spirit which all de hol’ African dem – de dead African dem dem come roun’ an’ dem lick you all a’ you’ headside an’ ride you ‘pon you’ neck an’ you drop. You see? Dat dere mean to say myal hol’ you now.”

So a di maiyal spirit de pan St Thomas mek plenti a wi tingk se di parish bakwod. An wi naa si se St Thomas a wan priti-priti parish. So moch divelopment a gwaahn a wes. An wi naa luk iis. A taim wi uopn wi yai an si di gud-gud maiyal spirit iina St Thomas.


For quite a long time, we’ve been calling St Thomas ‘the obeah parish’. And that’s no compliment. This is how the Dictionary of Jamaican English defines obeah: “The practice of malignant magic as widely known in Jamaica. Its origins are African.” And ‘malignant’ is no better. It comes from a Latin word meaning ‘malicious’. Keeping malice.  Envious and grudgeful. So that’s what we  think bout all of the people from St Thomas?

By the way, Cambridge University Press published that Jamaican English dictionary a long time ago. In 1967! And our own University of the West Indies Press bought the rights to republish it. From 2006. And even now, a lot of us don’t know about the dictionary. And whose fault is that? The Ministry of Education. The Ministry should put that book in every school library in all of Jamaica. Children need to learn bout their language.

Then the title of the dictionary is deceptive. It doesn’t focus on English. It’s actually the Jamaican language. But at the time that Frederic Cassidy and Robert LePage were writing the dictionary, it made sense to think of the language as ‘Jamaican English’. As if our language was a dialect of English. What they wanted to show is the way we’ve adapted English in Jamaica.

But a lot of the words in the dictionary aren’t English at all. Take, for instance, ‘obeah’. The Dictionary of Jamaican English notes that it comes from ‘ubio’. That’s Efik, an African language. And it has the very same negative meaning: “a thing or mixture of things, put in the ground, as a charm to cause sickness or death”. That’s really evil. But that’s not the whole story. The other side of obeah is myal. That takes off the curse of obeah. Just as the blood of Jesus saves from sin! I know a lot of Christians won’t appreciate the comparison. But it’s valid.


So how did St Thomas become the obeah parish? And don’t forget myal! After Emancipation, about 10,000 African came to Jamaica to work. Just like the South Asians and the Chinese. And they settled in St Thomas. They came from Central Africa and brought their culture. And they preserved it. For example, kumina.

Professor Maureen Warner-Lewis, from Trinidad, taught at the University of the West Indies, Mona, for more than 30 years. She wrote a book, Central Africa In the Caribbean, and one of the subjects she covered was  kumina. She interviewed a kumina queen, Miss Queenie, about myal. Here’s what Miss Queenie said:

“Myal is de ting dey call a spirit where you’ head ‘pin roun’ an you drop an’ you ‘kin pupalick ‘pon you neck, you see? Dat a myal spirit. Dat a bongo myal spirit which all de hol’ African dem – de dead African dem dem come roun’ an’ dem lick you all a’ you’ headside an’ ride you ‘pon you’ neck an’ you drop. You see? Dat dere mean to say myal hol’ you now.”

[Myal is a spiritual thing. Your head spins and you fall to the ground and you do somersaults, you see? That’s the myal spirit.  The bongo myal spirit of the African ancestors who surround you and hit you in your head and ride you and you fall.  You see?
That means that myal holds you now]

So it’s the myal spirit that’s on St Thomas that makes a lot of us think that the parish is backward. And we’re not seeing that St Thomas is a beautiful parish. So much development is taking place to the west. And we’re not looking to the east. It’s time we open our eyes and see the positive myal spirit in St Thomas.

That Cowardly Leggo-Beast Apology

imagesPolitics is a beastly business. It’s very hard for most politicians to speak the truth and speak it ever, cost it what it will. Memory gems from primary school mean absolutely nothing to politicians, especially when national elections are around the corner. They don’t dare risk telling the truth and offending potential voters.

Deacon Thwaites, minister of education, is no exception. He’s bowed to public pressure and apologised for his vivid leggo-beast remark, made recently, to much applause, at the annual conference of the Jamaica Teachers’ Association (JTA). In an age of political correctness, it’s not politic to call things by their right name. These days, ‘labelling’ children is very, very bad, especially if they actually fit the profile.

Here are the minister’s exact words: “And, also, the second thing we have to do, members of the JTA – Ministry of Education takes on the challenge with you – it is time that your association, now gone past the the [sic] crucible of wage negotiations, join with us and whoever else in saying not angrily, but resolutely, to the society, ‘Look here! Manage your own children! Do not send leggo beasts to our school and expect us to make the difference’!”

Last Tuesday, Thwaites was adamant that there was “no need for leggo beast apology”. But the very next day, he changed his mind. This is how he put it in a statement issued by the ministry: “On reflection and having listened to all the comments, I would like, even at this late stage, to withdraw my use of the term ‘leggo beast’ to describe uncontrollable children spoken at last week’s JTA Conference.”


imagesOne of the influential comments came in a press release from Senator Johnson-Smith, opposition spokesperson on education and youth: “Parents who have troubled children need help, and the minister of education must recognise the role of the school system, his ministry and himself as key tools in the resocialisation of troubled children. Classifying children as ‘leggo beasts’ has no place in the conversation about the challenges facing the system and its solutions. This disrespectful and divisive epitaph must be withdrawn.”

Senator Johnson-Smith meant ‘epithet’, not ‘epitaph’. The leggo beasts are very much alive. That’s a relatively minor error. It’s the “parents who have troubled children” statement that is troubling. Leggo beasts are not born; they are made. Often by parental neglect! So parents don’t just happen to “have” troubled children. They are responsible. True, some of them don’t know how to parent and need help. But where can they get it?

Leader of the Opposition, Andrew Holness, went even further, describing the leggo-beast remark as “reprehensible, disgraceful, unlawful and ignorant!” The “unlawful” charge seems to be based on the dishonest conclusion that Thwaites was telling parents not to send bad-behaving children to school. This is leggo-beast politics at its worst: wildly trying to score political points at the expense of the truth.

The minister of education was actually appealing to parents to give their children home training so that they could perform well in school. Thwaites said, “Manage your own children.” That’s a preventative measure to stop them from turning into leggo beasts. Schools can’t be expected to make up for what parents fail to do at home.


In his contradictory apology, Thwaites declares that, “Despite the difficulties, teachers must not label students.” But he, himself, does use the label ‘uncontrollable children’. The issue isn’t the label. It’s the language of the label. It’s ‘leggo beast’ that’s the real problem. So we’re back in the familiar territory of English versus Jamaican. The same old Sankey!

Check_The_ClassificationI would bet my last devalued dollar that if the minister had originally said “uncontrollable children”, rather than “leggo beasts”, even the Opposition would have joined the teachers in applauding his appeal. But he made the mistake of using a well-known Jamaican label that describes antisocial behaviour quite precisely.

The Dictionary of Jamaican English notes that ‘lego’ comes from ‘let-go’. The first meaning given is ‘Let-go, loose, disorderly, out of control’. Then it cites the phrase ‘lego-beast’. This is defined as ‘an animal or person without an owner or protector, that runs wild; anyone of loose morals’. Incidentally, this useful dictionary, published locally by the University of the West Indies Press, is on the e-Learning Jamaica Educational Materials platform and can be accessed for free by all secondary schools.

The first definition of ‘leggo beast’ accurately conveys Thwaites’ concern about the protective role of parents in preparing their children for school. But, he caved in: “The serious issue facing the society of weak parenting and inadequate community support to socialise so ma[n]y schoolchildren is likely to be overlooked by controversy over the appropriations [sic] of a phrase I used.”

I think Thwaites meant ‘appropriateness’, not ‘appropriations’. But as with ‘epitaph’ and ‘epithet’, this is a relatively minor matter. The bigger concern is truth versus controversy. The truth is, ‘leggo beast’ is a perfectly good translation of ‘uncontrollable children’.

Instead of avoiding controversy, Ronnie Thwaites should have courageously taken the opportunity to reflect on the function of our local language in public conversations about the educational system; and its use in schools! He knows the power of the language. Perhaps, the leggo beasts would be tamed by seeing themselves in the dictionary and knowing that their home language is on the curriculum.

Sexual Falsehood Top To Bottom

ninth-280I got several emails last week from angry people trying to persuade me that Dwayne Jones was responsible for his own murder.  His crime was not cross-dressing.  It was deceit. But since the whole point of cross-dressing is to deceive, this distinction really makes no sense.

Some people passionately argued that the men who were deceived into thinking that Dwayne was female were the real victims.  And they had every right to take defensive action.  One woman compared the deceit to rape.  This is how she put it:  “There is an emerging way of telling stories nowadays that lays no responsibility on the victims whatsoever and I don’t get it.

“Dwayne was Jamaican.  Why did he put himself at risk like that? AND!!!! he also put the lives of other men at risk.  If no alarm had been made, some of those other men would have been labelled gay. Some of the men who were wined upon against their will may even have been traumatised for life.   As my friend was when his schoolmates from a prominent Kingston high school raped him”.

But the men who were ‘wined upon’ were quite willing to participate.  Dwyane did not wine on them against their will.  It was not rape.  It was consensual wining.  As far as the men knew, they were not dancing with a man.  Dwayne had become the self-styled ‘Gully Queen’.  It was pure theatre.

Simone Perrotta, Christian ChivuCross-dressing men are not necessarily gay.  And dancing with a cross-dressing man doesn’t automatically put a man at risk of being labelled gay.  Full body contact between Jamaican men is not always taboo.  It’s perfectly acceptable on the sports field. Footballers passionately embrace when a goal is scored.  It’s a ritual of the game.  I know it’s not exactly the same as wining in the dancehall.  But the body language is similar.  It’s just a different dialect.


Perhaps I’m expecting too much of Jamaican men.  But I think a self-confident man could have acted far differently to the outing of Dwayne.  A real man could have made a joke of it. He could have just said, “Bombo claat! Di bwoy good!  Im ketch mi fi true!” And even though Dwyane didn’t have a bombo, the profanity would have been enough of a judgement.

a-dictionary-jamaican-english-frederic-gomes-cassidy-paperback-cover-artThe so-called ‘bad’ word, ‘bombo’ is a perfectly good word of African origin, meaning ‘vulva’.  But like many other elements of African culture in Jamaica, the word has been devalued.  The word shows up in Eric Partridge’s 1949 Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English where it’s described as “West Indian; orig[inally] a negroes’ word”.

Our own Dictionary of Jamaican English, published in 1967, notes that in the Zulu language there’s a similar word ‘bumbu’, meaning ‘pubic region’.   So a cloth for the bombo, like a cloth for blood, is simply a ‘sanitary pad’.  How a clean cloth could become a very dirty word in Jamaica is a whole other story.

And talking of cleaning cloths, I got an informative email from a Jamaican living abroad: “When I first came to Asia, I noticed that many men carried a small packet of wet wipes.  I asked what it was used for.  I learnt only Muslims did this. I learnt that they used it in the bathrooms to wipe their penises to ensure there was no dribbling after they passed urine. Urine on clothing is considered unclean and it is avoided like the plague.”  So our male cross-dressers at Caribbean Fashion Week do have a point.


rooster-prev1230259193QKMb3gAll of the angry email-writers stopped short of saying that Dwayne should have been put to death.  They couldn’t quite go there.  But none of them laid any blame on the woman who let the cock out of the bag.  I think she should have taken a less scandalous approach.  She could have called Dwayne aside and said something like this:  “Hey bwoy!  Yu mad! Yu no know dem man wi kill yu if dem find out?  Mind yu self!”  But she didn’t.

Dwayne’s deception is an extreme version of the sexual games people play all the time.  These days, women have mastered the art of deceit.  They completely reengineer themselves:  false hair, false eyelashes, false nails, false breasts, false bottoms, false everything.  You can actually buy panties in local stores with padded bottoms.  And men have been known to stuff their briefs, especially when the contents are very brief.  A most wicked falsehood!

Picking up a ‘man’ or ‘woman’ at a dance is a very risky business. You really don’t know if you’re going to get fish or fowl.  It’s a big chance you take.  And as for online dating, that’s a whole other kettle of fish.  People just lie, out and out.  I’m amazed by the statistics you hear on American television about all the marriages that dating services have arranged.  I keep wondering about the divorce rates.


I got a most intriguing email about a Chinese man, Jian Feng, whose unnamed wife gave birth to a rather ugly baby, in his opinion. The child looked like neither parent.  Feng assumed the child was a ‘jacket’ and accused his wife of adultery.  But that was not her abomination.  The rather plain woman had done extensive plastic surgery to make herself beautiful.  Genes don’t lie so the baby came out looking like the ‘real’ mother.

article-2223718-15B43F0C000005DC-575_306x423Jian Feng filed for divorce on the grounds that his wife had deceived him. He won the case and was awarded US$120,000 – more than  the US$100,000 his wife had spent on plastic surgery.  I suppose if Feng had been a certain kind of Jamaican man he would have batter-bruised his wife physically.

But divorce, in this case, is emotional abuse.  Why couldn’t Feng have lived with the fact that his wife simply wanted to be beautiful?  In much the same way, Dwyane Jones just wanted to be the gully queen.  Death is a very high price to pay for that forbidden desire.

Addicted to Salt Fish

One of my favourite calypsoes is the Mighty Sparrow’s pungent tribute to salt fish.  The distinctive flavour of this delicacy makes the calypsonian salivate in verse after tasty verse.  And we all know that the fleshy salt fish over which the singer’s sensitive tongue playfully lingers is not to be taken literally.  Well, not entirely so.  That’s what makes the salty lyrics so sweet.

I have no problems with Sparrow’s celebration of the pleasures of savouring figurative salt fish.  In fact, he must be applauded for bringing into the open, so to speak, a subject that is often concealed in the kitchen cabinet.  Caribbean men love to eat certain kinds of salt fish in private – though some of them would never admit it in public.

What does bother me is our cut and dried addiction to salt fish of the literal kind.  All through the Caribbean – Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, right around the arc of islands to Aruba – salt fish is in our blood.  And it’s a provoking irony of history that salted cod, which was brought to the Caribbean as cheap food for enslaved Africans, has now stepped up in life.

‘One People’ documentary

A couple of Saturdays ago, on my regular market run to Papine, I went to Ras Hopeton’s cookshop to see if he had any fritters that had just come out of the frying pan.  I like my fritters crisp and hot.  Ras Hopeton’s shop is beautifully decorated with Ethiopian/Rastafari flags.  There are pictures of His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I and the equally imperial Marcus Garvey. Empress Mennen and Prince Immanuel are there, as well as Queen Ifrica.  On a more mundane level, Red Rose tea, Wrigley’s and Pepsi signs are very much in evidence.

Hellshire before sand erosion

I was quite disappointed when Ras Hopeton told me he’s stopped selling fritters.  At $450.00 per pound, salt fish is just too expensive.  So now he’s doing only dumplings.  I questioned his decision, pointing out the big difference between the price of the dumplings – $25.00 and the fritters – $70.00.  His profit margin would be much higher from throwing in a little salt fish.  In any case, I really couldn’t buy ‘so-so’ fried flour. It’s not as if I was at Hellshire eating festival, along with one of Aunt Merle’s fat parrot fish.

Robbed of my fritters fix, I started to contemplate the culinary legacy of transatlantic slavery.  If that sounds too highfalutin, let me put it another way.  Why is ackee and saltfish our unofficial national dish?  On Independence day, as I watched the One People documentary, produced by Justine Henzell and Zachary Harding, I was amused to see how many people said their favourite Jamaican dish is ackee and saltfish: Donald Quarrie, Beverly Anderson Duncan, Mutabaruka, General Colin Powell, Sean Paul, Ainsley Henriques, Romain Virgo, Jack Scorpio, Constance White and Cliff Hughes.  Elephant Man was one of the exceptions with his mouth-watering description of roasted yam cut in two, pasted with chiffon butter and topped with roasted salt fish.  For Michael Lee Chin, it’s mackerel run down.

Import substitution

The ackee in the popular national dish is an appropriate enough symbol.  According to the Dictionary of Jamaican English, the ackee plant “was brought here in a Slave Ship from the Coast of Africa, and now grows very luxuriant, producing every year large quantities of fruit”.  The ackee was introduced around 1778 and it has certainly taken root in Jamaica.  Ackee also migrated to the Eastern Caribbean but it’s not usually eaten there.

The salt fish in our unofficial national dish is another story.  Unlike the ackee which has become totally Jamaican, imported saltfish is a symbol of our continued dependence on foreign goods and services.  Surrounded by a sea of fish, we still believe that Canadian cod or, more recently, Norwegian salt fish is the ideal complement to ackee.

One of the best policies advocated by the democratic socialists of the 1970s was import substitution.  I know I’m going to be accused of glamourising a period of Jamaican history that so many people feel was the closest thing to hell, thanks to Michael Manley.  Supermarkets practically empty of foreign foods!

But import substitution wasn’t just a matter of deprivation.  It was an opportunity for us to experiment with local raw materials and create new products.  Since we’re so stuck on ackee and saltfish, why haven’t we come up with a high quality local alternative to imported cod?

Culinary slavery

Just like our CARICOM partners in the Eastern Caribbean who don’t eat ackee, we are missing out on perfectly good local foods simply because we’re afraid to experiment. For example, the purple flower of the banana plant is edible.  I’ve seen it on sale in Asian grocery stores in London.  And the leaves of the sweet potato plant can be cooked down like calaloo.  Quite a few years ago, on a research visit to the Fiji campus of the University of the South Pacific, I discovered curried green jackfruit.  It’s absolutely delicious.

I think the Caribbean Food and Nutrition Institute (CFNI) needs to do a global audit of food items from other tropical countries that are readily available in Jamaica and which we’re wasting simply because we don’t know their full value. I know it’s a real challenge to re-educate one’s taste buds.  Food culture is harder to change than ideology.  I get vexed with myself every time I buy an expensive piece of imported salt fish.  Fresh fish is just about the same price, if not a bit cheaper.  But I’m a victim of history.  Still, I’m trying to emancipate myself from culinary slavery.

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!’

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.

Maasa Gad Taak Patwa?

Photo from DARE website

Last week, I was properly chastised on the blog by Aasia who firmly reminded me that I’d promised to start using the specialist writing system for Jamaican:

“As much as I support promoting Jamaican, I don’t like when it is polluted as you do it sometimes. I know reading and understanding true/Cassidy system Jamaican is difficult but we will get used to it eventually if you use it more often. I thought you said you were going to be using this space for that? To my mind, attempting to write Jamaican with English syntax/lexicon etc is bad English and not Jamaican. And, if we continue to write Jamaican mixed with so many English words (although Jamaican is English-based) we would be playing into the hands of the persons who continue to say Jamaican cannot stand on its own as a language.  Please use the Cassidy system Doc.”

Aasia refers here to the writing system for Jamaican that was developed by the Jamaican-born linguist Frederic Cassidy who enjoyed a distinguished career as a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Professor Cassidy was the founder of DARE, the Dictionary of American Regional English.  Visit the DARE website at http://dare.wisc.edu/?q=node/23

The DARE site informs us that “Although the idea of a dictionary of the dialects of American English had been promoted by the American Dialect Society (ADS) as long ago as 1889, the reality of that project did not begin to take shape until 1962, when Frederic Cassidy . . . was appointed Editor.”

Like a typical Jamaican, Cassidy just took over:  “Late in the 1940s, chafing at the inaction of the ADS, Cassidy had decided to do a pilot survey in Wisconsin to test the feasibility of a nationwide field survey. With graduate student Audrey R. Duckert, he combed the relevant publications and devised a lengthy questionnaire asking about as many topics of daily life as they could think of. Carrying out the survey using mailed packets of questions, Cassidy and Duckert determined that, with some modifications of the questionnaire, it would indeed be possible to undertake a country-wide examination of American English.”

Paperback edition published by the University of the West Indies Press

Cassidy had had lots of experience in the field, particularly from working with Robert LePage on the superb Dictionary of Jamaican English. Using the proper technical terms, he laid out the writing system for Jamaican in the dictionary which was first published in 1967.

Here’s my amateur version of the system.  In the first column is the symbol of the sound; in the second column, I use the Cassidy spelling for Jamaican; and in the third column, I illustrate the pronunciation of the words using English spellings of roughly equivalent sounds.

Vowel Symbols Application English version
i it it
ii iit eat
ie rien rain
e pen pen
a hat hat
aa haat heart
ai hait height
o hot hot
u put put
uu yuut youth
ou hous house
uo duor door

Consonants Application English version
b big big
p pig pig
d dig dig
t tin tin
g go go
gy gyal gal
k kop cup
ky kyap cap
m mii me
n net net
ny nyuu new
ng ring ring
v van van
f fan fan
z zuu zoo
s son son
sh fish fish
j juk jook
ch chap chap
l lik lick
w waata water
r rien rain
y yes yes

So mek wi gu ina it:

Ef Maasa Gad no taak patwa, mi sari fi dem uol iip a piipl iina Jamieka an iina farin wa taak tu im ebri die inna patwa an ekspek im fi ansa dem:  Du Maasa Jiizas!  Memba di pikni dem mi a fait op wid.  No mek dem get iina no chrobl!  Yes, Laad.  Yu si di bad briid man mi de wid?  Du, no bada mek notn bad apn tu im.  Bad az tingz bi, mi uda neva laik si im get wat im dizorv.”

“Laad Gad!  Yu si di uman wa yu gi mi fi liv wid?  Maasa Jiizas, wa mek yu bring dong dat de kraasiz pan mi?  A we mi du?  A no likl chrai mi chrai wid di bad-main uman.  Mi memba dat 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 fi briid a kos shi dis a kos mi.  Laad, tek di kies an lef di pila.”