‘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.

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!’