Late one night, several years ago, I find myself in idle conversation with a drunken Maori man in the main bus station in the city of Auckland. I’d just come by train from Rotorua, a fantastic region of New Zealand full of geysers, mud pools and all sorts of volcanic activity. I was quite tired from the four-hour journey so I was definitely not in the mood for conversation with sober people, much more drunks.
“Kia ora!”, the man calls out. After almost a week in New Zealand I know this means ‘hi’ in Maori. I pretend to be deaf. But this old man is persistent and quite loudly repeats his ‘kia ora’. He proudly announces, “That’s ‘hello’ in my language, Maori.” Big laugh now. “You can say it?”, he challenges me.
I say to myself, “This man drunk but im not drunk to dat”. So I decide to humour him. I imitate his greeting and he laughs heartily. “Good,” he says, “Not like these pakeha people. Can’t talk Maori”. I also now know that ‘pakeha’ means ‘white people’ in Maori. The old man warms to the conversation. “You from Fiji?”, he asks. “No”, I respond.
Naturally, this monosyllabic answer is getting us nowhere. So he follows up, “Where?” I say, “Africa”. Then he asks, and I should have seen it coming, “Kia ora! How you say ‘hello’ in your language?” Big trouble now. What am I going to tell this man? Im drunk, so I’m tempted to make up some mumbo-jumbo. But that would be taking a joke too far.
English colonized by Africans
So I draw my ‘real-real’ language, Jamaican. I tell him that in my language we say, “Wa a gwaan?” So for the next few minutes this drunken man keeps on repeating, “Wa gwaan?” He doesn’t quite catch the extra ‘a’ in the middle.
My sister, Donnette, who used to work for an airline company and so could do crazy things like fly from Maryland to New Zealand for a long weekend, is by this time shaking her head in amazement. Her contribution to the conversation is, “I hope is not this kind of fraudulent information you been giving out along the way”. I was on a six-week lecture tour of the Pacific.
“Fraudulent?” I protested. “‘Wa a gwaan?’ is kinda African”. After all. Even though ‘Wa a gwaan?’ is really Jamaican not African, we all know where Jamaican came from: various dialects of 17th English colonized by speakers of various West African languages, for the most part. I know that some backward people still insist that Jamaican is not a language; it’s just a ‘corruption’ of English. Africans are doing the corrupting.
So ‘wa a gwaan?’ is nothing but a rotten version of ‘What’s going on?’ But, trust me, nobody who doesn’t know Jamaican, drunk or no drunk, would ever figure out that ‘Wa a gwaan?’ started life as English. It has been completely disguised.
Language death and rebirth
While in New Zealand I was fortunate to interview Professor Pat Hohepa at Auckland University’s Maori Studies Centre. One of his big concerns is what he calls ‘language death’. There was a period in New Zealand’s recent history when it looked as if the Maori language was dying out.
Now, there’s a concerted effort to teach Maori in schools. Speaking the Maori language is recognized as an essential way of keeping the culture alive. And it’s not only Maoris who need to learn the language. If pakehas are really serious about creating a truly bi-cultural New Zealand, they will have to learn Maori too.
Professor Hohepa also talked about reggae music in Maori. And he highlighted Bob Marley’s revolutionary music as a language of resistance for the Maoris in their struggle to regain control over their collective destiny: “Every man got a right to decide his own destiny”.
I wonder how long it’s going to take us in Jamaica to realise the value of the new mother tongues Africans created in this country and across the African diaspora. Our educators don’t seem to understand that as long as we tell children that they ‘chat bad’ when they use their mother tongue, we are planting the seeds of low self-esteem. And we will reap badness. Or, perhaps, we do understand and that’s why we refuse to acknowledge Jamaican as a ‘proper-proper’ language.
International Creole Day
Last Friday was International Creole Day. The Jamaican Language Unit at the University of the West Indies, Mona, led the local celebrations. Regretfully, these were affected by Hurricane Sandy. Across the Caribbean region and the wider Creole world, the resilience of the speakers of often-marginalised languages was acknowledged.
French Creole languages are spoken and written in Haiti, St. Lucia, Dominica, Guadeloupe, Martinique, French Guyana, Reunion, Seychelles, Mauritania and Louisiana. The vocabulary of our own Jamaican Creole is mostly of English origin. So it’s sometimes not so easy for amateurs to see how different the language really is from English.
We don’t fully understand ‘wat a gwaan’ with the other aspects of the Jamaican language such as grammar, word order and the structure of sounds. And we arrogantly refuse to take the linguists seriously even though they actually know what they’re talking about.
If we had stopped to listen to the linguists who have been doing serious research on Caribbean Creoles for more than half a century, we would have realised by now that we should have been joyously celebrating the Jamaican language in this fiftieth anniversary of independence. For language is one of the primal expressions of identity.
One of the big ironies of our racialised national motto is that it fails to recognise that it’s not a vague ‘out of oneness’ that unites us as a people. It’s the specificity of the Jamaican language. Most Jamaicans, irrespective of class, colour, gender, sexual orientation and age, are more or less competent speakers of Jamaican. And if you don’t know the language, you are the odd one out: yu salt! Yu no know wat a gwaan.