Time for Jamaican Language Day

On Easter Monday, I went to a party for one of my friends who recently retired from banking. There was a very high concentration of former NCB managers. They exchanged entertaining stories about the early days when black people started to break through the glass ceiling of upper management at the old imperial Barclays Bank.

After much liquor had flowed, one of the men cornered me. This was not a sexual advance. It was purely academic. He wanted to discuss a subject on which he was sure we disagreed. I knew what was coming. Sure enough, he wanted to know why I was against Jamaican children learning English; and why I was proposing that Patwa be used as a language of instruction in school. He proudly told me that his daughter was fluent in several languages and was teaching English in Japan. He even phoned her and we had a quick chat.

I asked my interrogator why he thought I didn’t want Jamaican children to learn English. He couldn’t give a straight answer. He vaguely said that’s what he’d picked up from the media. And he simply didn’t understand my position, especially since he knew I had a PhD in English. As far as he was concerned, I was either wicked or mad. Wicked because I was selfishly knocking down the ladder I had climbed. I didn’t want others to get the opportunities I’d had. Or I was mad because I wanted to lock Jamaican children out of the world of English, a global language, and imprison them in a local language, Jamaican.

WASTE OF TIME

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The fact that I’ve been teaching English for more than 40 years didn’t matter. So I patiently explained that I actually do want all Jamaican children to learn English. And other languages as well! I also want them to learn the differences between English and Jamaican. And that’s where the trouble starts.

For many educated Jamaicans, Patwa is not a language. It’s nothing but ‘broken’ English. Calling this non-language ‘Jamaican’ is pure foolishness. Teaching children the differences between Jamaican and English is a waste of time. Just focus on teaching them English! Forget about their home language! That’s how we’ve been teaching English for decades and it certainly has not been working. There are many tertiary-level students who are not competent in English.

Shouldn’t we be trying other methods if we really want all of our children to learn English? A few years ago, I taught a basic English course for staff at one of our commercial banks. I carefully pointed out differences between the grammar of English and Jamaican. At the end of one of the classes, an attentive man asked, “Why nobody never teach us like this before?” Perhaps, because the Ministry of Education is satisfied with the status quo.

HIT OR MISS

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Last Sunday, a group of us went to Cable Hut Beach. It’s no Pearly Beach. The sand is black, like the patrons. And it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg to get in: only $200 for adults and $100 for children. The property is being refurbished and the restaurant building is not completed. It’s a beautiful, grand hut with a magnificent view out to sea.

So we went to Corn Shop at Nine Miles where we got delicious roast fish and sprat. I am not putting no ‘ed’ on ‘roast’. It’s Jamaican! As we were ordering our food, a nice gentleman started up a conversation. Same story: Why aren’t Jamaican children learning English these days? Is it because of all this emphasis on Patwa?

He learned English the painful way. English grammar was drilled into him. For many Jamaicans of a certain age, John Nesfield’s Manual of English Grammar and Composition, first published in London in 1898, was the bible that opened the pearly gates into high society. It was widely used both in England and the colonies.

Things and times have certainly changed. Even in England, there are now huge debates about the effectiveness of teaching old-school grammar. One of the problems is that many teachers of English there have not learned the grammar of the language in a systematic way. So their teaching is hit or miss.

Most of our primary-school English teachers have an even harder time. English is their second language, not their first. They don’t know it intuitively. And many of them have not been efficiently taught the structure of English. Their teaching of the language is more miss than hit. And we’re surprised that students are not learning English.

CULTURAL DIVERSITY

Celebrating-Language-UN-English-Language-DayLast Sunday, April 23, was United Nations (UN) English Language Day. The UN website states that Language Days were established in 2010 “to celebrate multilingualism and cultural diversity, as well as to promote equal use of all six official languages”. These are, in alphabetical order, Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish.

April 23 was chosen for English because it’s both the birthday and deathday of William Shakespeare, England’s most celebrated dramatist. Conspiracy theorists claim that he didn’t write all those plays. All the same, these long-lasting literary works demonstrate the beauty and power of the English language.

Every country has its own great writers. In the spirit of cultural diversity, let’s make September 7 Jamaican Language Day. It’s Louise Bennett-Coverley’s birthday. As she would say, “Every dog got im day an every puss im 4 o’clock.”

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‘Corruption of Language is No Cultural Heritage’

Morris Cargill

That headline was classic Morris Cargill.  In his Sunday Gleaner column published on October 29, 1989, Cargill mockingly made his case for banning ‘Patois’:  “The slackness and anarchy of Patois reflects itself [sic] in the slackness and anarchy of our society in general.  We are as we speak and we speak as we are”.

That ‘sic’ is not a bad dog I’m setting on Cargill’s duppy.  It’s a sign of a grammatical slip that could be mistaken for a typing error.  ‘Sic’ is Latin, meaning ‘thus, so’.    In this context, it means, ‘a so Cargill write it’.  The subject of the sentence is plural – ‘slackness and anarchy’ – so the form of the verb should also be plural – ‘reflect’.  And, of course, ‘itself’ should then be ‘themselves’.  The passive voice would have been even better: “The slackness and anarchy of Patois are reflected in  . . .”

I don’t usually draw attention to grammatical errors in public, except in the classroom.  I don’t set out to embarrass speakers who are not competent in English; not even duppies. I don’t idolize English. It’s just a useful tool of communication like every other language across the globe.   But since Morris Cargill used to make such a big point about English ‘correctness,’ I think it’s quite appropriate in this instance to show him up.

Bilingual Education

In that contemptuous column, Cargill attempted to ridicule the lucid arguments made by Dr. Mertel Thompson in support of bilingual education for Jamaican students.  For more than two decades, Dr. Thompson taught English at the University of the West Indies, Mona.  She certainly understood the complexities of language teaching and learning in Jamaica.

Last week, Dr. Thompson was laid to rest.  At her funeral service, her son, Douglas, reminded the congregation of Cargill’s tongue-in-cheek assessment of the value of his mother’s academic work.  And he humorously predicted that Mertel would be giving Morris language lessons in heaven.

On Earth, Cargill paid no attention to the rigorous scholarship of all the linguists who have given clear evidence that Jamaican is, indeed, a language. For example, the Trinidadian linguist Mervyn Alleyne explains in his book Roots of Jamaican Culture how the new language developed:

    “[B]ecause Africans speaking different languages and coming from different parts of West Africa needed to communicate both among themselves and (less so) with Europeans (in this case English people, themselves speaking different dialects and coming from different parts of the United Kingdom), their language changed.  First the vocabulary is discarded, then the morphology, then the syntax, and finally the phonology; within phonology the old intonation pattern apparently lasts longest.”

Pure Jamaican

Louise Bennett

In less technical language, Louise Bennett’s Aunty Roachy gives a much more subversive account of the process.  She doesn’t use those big Latin/Greek words:  ‘vocabulary’ (words); ‘morphology’ (structure); ‘syntax’ (word order) or ‘phonology’ (sound).  It’s pure Jamaican:  “Aunty Roachy seh dat if Jamaican dialect is corruption of de English Language, den it is also a corruption of de African Twi Language to, a oh!

“For Jamaica dialect did start when we English forefahders did start mus-an-boun we African ancestors fi stop talk fi-dem African language altogedder an learn fi talk so-so English, because we English forefahders couldn understan what we African ancestors-dem wasa seh to dem one anodder!

“But we African ancestors-dem pop we English forefahders-dem!  Yes!  Pop dem an disguise up de English Language fi projec fi-dem African language in such a way dat we English forefahders-dem still couldn understan what we African ancestors-dem wasa talk bout when dem wasa talk to dem one anodder!”

Unlike Aunty Roachy and Dr. Thompson, Morris Cargill had no respect for the Jamaican language.  He dismissed those of us who, as he put it,  “would like to see Patois retained as part of our cultural heritage, and believe that it can occupy that honourable place alongside the teaching of standard English”.

‘A lousy heritage’

   Cargill made his own position absolutely clear:  “I, on the other hand, take the view that if it is what is called ‘our cultural heritage,’ it is a lousy heritage redolent of slavery and that if we keep on saying it is a great thing, it merely encourages its continued use until it will finally swamp what remains of standard English in Jamaica.  Of necessity, most people have inherited patois but I see no reason to make a virtue of necessity”.

Frederic Cassidy

Making a virtue of necessity, I knew that it was imperative to respond to Cargill; and in Jamaican.  Too often we defend the Jamaican language in English.  I also decided to use the writing system designed for the language by the Jamaican linguist Frederic Cassidy.  My response to Morris Cargill’s column was published in the Sunday Gleaner on November 5, 1989.  This is how I launched my counter-attack:

Wat a nais bakra man Misa Cargill iz, iing!  Luk ou im so sari fi puor ignarant blak piipl!  No waant no huol hiip a bakwod piipl dis a waak-waak bout Jamieka a iikwal op demself, a gwaan laik se dem a taak langgwij jos laik im, a fuul op demself.  Nuo man!  Misa Cargill waant di huol a wi fi nuo wi plies.  Im waant wi fi nuo se wi kom iin laik pus an daag:  wi kyan baak an bait an mek naiz an shuo se wi beks, an kin wi tiit.  Bot langgwij?  Kolcha?  Wa niem so?  Wi no nuo dem de hai wod, maasa.  Dem briid a wod ongl paas out a bakra mout.

These days, the Gleaner would never publish on the editorial page a column written entirely in Jamaican.  Believe me, I have tried. We have flag independence. Yet we continue to suffer from mental slavery.  Claiming the power of the language we have created on this Jamrock would be a big step on the long journey to full freedom.

T&T Lit Fest Puts us to Shame

In Trinidad last April at the BOCAS lit fest, I kept on thinking about the ‘batter-bruising’ the Calabash International Literary Festival suffered each year to secure funding; with a lot of bobbing and weaving, the organisers managed to sustain the creative enterprise for an entire decade. As the perceptive jackass puts it: ‘Di world no level.’

Oops! ‘Patwa’. Somebody is going to have a fit. The mentally enslaved are suffering from such a bad case of ‘Englishtitis’. They simply can’t see the value of raising the profile of the Jamaican language and making it an instrument of formal, written discourse. When I saw the comments on The Gleaner’s website, in response to my column, ‘Even God speaks Patwa’, ‘mi jus shake mi head’. Most of them were so hostile.

The anger at my use of Jamaican in The Sunday Gleaner is alarming. Why do some people get so worked up about giving visibility to their own mother tongue? Is it insecurity about their competence in English? It’s just one ‘dege-dege’ column.  You don’t have to read it.  You can just cut your eye and move on.

The basic issue is pure intolerance. If I don’t like Patwa, nobody else should enjoy seeing it on the editorial page of Jamaica’s premier newspaper. The other issue is that, for some people, any celebration of the local language must mean dissing English. We can’t be comfortably bilingual; or, even better, multilingual. It’s just another version of the tired PNP versus JLP mentality. We could never have a coalition government made up of the best of the ‘might as cheap’.

All about power

On the flight to Trinidad, the first officer made an announcement about the time difference between Jamaica and the Eastern Caribbean. In a completely unpretentious Trini accent, he said, without apology, that it was “ten to tree in Barbados and Trinidad”. Yes, tree.

I immediately remembered Miss Lou’s wicked poem, ‘Bans a Killin”, in which she poked fun at the man who wanted to kill off ‘Jamaica dialect’. He was so stuck on English, Miss Lou humorously warned him that if he dropped an ‘h’ he might have to kill himself. Our Trini pilot had no such anxiety.

Those days, Miss Lou, like the rest of us, was taught to see the Jamaican language as a regional variation of English: a dialect. Now, some of us prefer to think of our mother tongue as a distinct national language in the spirit of the famous witticism: “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy.” It’s all about power.

Dr. Marcia Roye

The Jamaican language doesn’t have a grand army or navy, but we do have Bob Marley, Usain Bolt and Dr Marcia Roye, a lecturer in biotechnology at the University of the West Indies, Mona, who won the inaugural L’Oreal-UNESCO Special Fellowship Grant for women in science. It was established this year to mark the centennial of Marie Curie’s Nobel Prize in chemistry.

Worth €30,000, the grant was awarded to Dr Roye in recognition of her outstanding research in the field of plant virology and antiretroviral drug resistance in HIV/AIDS patients; and for being a role model to young scientists. ‘Go deh, Doc!’

Bet yu anyting, Dr Roye figure out her research project inna Patwa even though she write it up inna English! Wi so shame a fi wi owna language. Fi notn. Wa mek? A through a African people mek it up? Wi a tie up wi tongue an a bleach out di African culture.

 

‘Sake a cheapness’

The inaugural Trinidad and Tobago literary festival, which ended in fine style last Sunday, was a grand affirmation of the power of the word in all its rich diversity: mostly English and various regional Creoles. But there was also Spanish – the name of the BOCAS festival means ‘mouths’ – and French and Hindi and Portuguese and Dutch and Papiamentu and more! A virtual tower of Babel.

The festival was held in a towering nine-storey building in Port-of-Spain that houses the national library. When I thought of the magnificent setting of the Calabash festival in Treasure Beach, with that splendid backdrop of the Caribbean Sea, ‘mi almost cry fi tink how wi dash weh a national treasure sake a cheapness’.

The BOCAS lit fest attracted high-level support, in cash and kind, from 26 private- and public-sector sponsors! Republic Bank, The National Gas Company, KFC, The National Library and One Caribbean Media were top-tier sponsors. Next in line were Flow, BP Trinidad and Tobago, the Commonwealth Foundation and the Alliance Française. Media partners included Lonsdale Saatchi & Saatchi, Caribbean Beat and the Trinidad Express.

Trinidad and Tobago has lots and lots of oil money. The country can more than afford to become the ATM for the entire Caribbean. It can certainly fund an international literary festival. But money isn’t everything. To put on a world-class literary festival, showcasing the verbal creativity of the Caribbean and the rest of the world, you need imagination, daring and a whole heap of hard work. The very same talents it takes to be a compelling writer.

Marina Salandy Brown (left) and Rhea Yaw Ching

The BOCAS lit fest, founded and directed by the formidable Marina Salandy-Brown, has opened its mouth and made a lot of creative noise. Let’s hope the Jamaican private sector is listening.