Fri | Jan 19, 2018

Carolyn Cooper | Miss Lou a very happy duppy today!

Published:Sunday | July 31, 2016 | 12:00 AM

Last Tuesday was the 10th anniversary of Louise Bennett's death. There was a lot of talk in the media about the value of her creative work. Miss Lou played many roles: folklorist, poet, storyteller, playwright, actress, TV host, radio broadcaster and, most of all, educator. She remains our foremost activist for acceptance of our mother tongue as a proper language.

For more than 15 years - from 1966 to 1982 - she did a radio programme, 'Miss Lou's Views', which attracted a huge audience. In 'Jamaica Language', she declares war: "My Aunty Roachy seh dat it bwile her temper an really bex her anytime she hear anybody a style we Jamaican dialec as 'corruption of the English language'. For if dat be de case, den dem shoulda call English language corruption of Norman French an Latin an all dem tarra language what dem seh dat English is derived from.

"Oonoo hear de wud? 'Derived.' English is a derivation but Jamaica dialec is corruption! What a unfairity! We derive, too! Aunty Roachy seh dat if Jamaican dialec is corruption of de English language, den it is also a corruption of de African Twi language to, a oh!

"For Jamaica dialec did start when we English fore-fahders 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 fore-fahders couldn understand what we African ancestors-dem wasa seh to dem one anodder when dem wasa talk eena dem African language to dem one anodder!

But we African ancestors-dem pop we English forefahders-dem. Yes! Pop dem an disguise up de English language fi project fi-dem African language in such a way dat we English forefahders dem still couldn understand what we African ancestors-dem wasa talk bout when dem wasa talk to dem one anodder!"




We like to glibly brand Miss Lou a "cultural icon". But what does that mean? I wonder how many Jamaicans have actually read her books or listened to her CDs. This past academic year, I taught a research course on Louise Bennett at the University of the West Indies, Mona. Several students admitted that they really didn't know very much about her legacy. In a vague sort of way, they understood that she was important. And that was about it.

I wouldn't be surprised if, one of these days, students on TVJ's Schools' Challenge Quiz failed to give the right answer to the question, "For which Caribbean country is Louise Bennett a cultural icon?" God forbid they should say "Barbados" or "Trinidad and Tobago"! But if they did, we would probably hear the excuse that they didn't understand the meaning of "cultural icon".

Then even if you don't believe in duppies, you should be able to imagine what dead people might think about current affairs. I know it would grieve Miss Lou's heart to see how little we are doing to ensure that her important work gets on the curriculum at all levels. It's good that her creative writing is featured in the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission's anthology for the children's speech competition. But that's not enough.




This week, Miss Lou will be a very happy duppy. The Society for Caribbean Linguistics is hosting its 21st biennial conference at the University of the West Indies, Mona, from August 1-6. Their website is The conference theme is 'Caribbean Languages to the World'. Experts in the field will talk about languages like Jamaican in a sophisticated way. It won't be the usual mockery we have come to expect from stubborn laymen.

My column last week was written in Jamaican, 'Good ting Rowley never tek Gleaner advice!' As usual, I used two writing systems. Chaka-Chaka is based on English spelling, which is notoriously unruly. And Prapa-Prapa is an orderly system designed by linguists. This is what Mark wrote in response: "One of the Intellectual Ghetto's princesses! I am trying to understand her in patois. Is it just me?" I was amused by ricky89ja's answer: "Hush. Not everybody educated enough to read certain things. Go n pick up a comic book. Don't be too hard on yourself."

I do understand that some people find it rather difficult to read Jamaican. Literacy in the language isn't on the curriculum. All the same, with a little bit of effort, most readers who are literate in English can make sense of the Chaka-Chaka writing. It's nothing but false pride that seduces some readers into thinking that literacy in Jamaican is beneath them.

The "intellectual ghetto" will host distinguished scholars such as Michel DeGraffe, a professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and director of the MIT-Haiti Initiative. This project uses the Haitian Kreyol language to teach science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines, helping Haitians learn in the language most of them speak at home. Professor DeGraffe is also a founding member of Akademi Kreyol Ayisyen (Haitian Creole Academy).

Another outstanding scholar is Dr Marta Dijkhoff, a former minister of education for the Netherlands Antilles. She was instrumental in getting Papiamentu accepted as a language of instruction throughout the educational system in Curacao. Both Professor DeGraffe and Dr Dijkhoff will be guests on 'Big Tingz a Gwaan', this Thursday at 4:30 p.m. on NewsTalk 93 FM. Miss Lou's duppy will also be on air. To di worl!

- Carolyn Cooper is a consultant on culture and development. Email feedback to and