Thu | Oct 17, 2019

Carolyn Cooper | Caribbean Airlines and Miss Lou

Published:Sunday | September 22, 2019 | 12:37 AM

What do Caribbean Airlines and Miss Lou have in common? Believe it or not, the airline is bigging up our language loud and clear.

Last week, at Norman Manley International Airport, I saw the airline’s huge ad along an extensive walkway. It’s a mural with 14 panels celebrating Jamaican culture. Each section has a large caption in the Jamaican language. For example, ‘Di Riddim Hol’ Yu’. Underneath, in much smaller print, is an English translation: ‘The Rhythm Moves You’. Some of the translations, like this one, are not quite accurate. Moving is the opposite of holding. I would have used ‘grabs’ instead of ‘moves’. But the project is such a great idea, I know I shouldn’t quibble about a few inaccuracies here and there.

Then the disparity in size between the Jamaican caption and the English translation beautifully reverses the usual balance of power between the two languages. English is the single official of Jamaica. The language spoken by the majority of us is constantly dissed in public affairs. It’s dismissed as substandard. By contrast, the Caribbean Airlines ad seems to give pride of place to the Jamaican language.

But the 14 panels are framed by two identical panels at each end of the mural with the words, ‘For all the reasons you fly’. Exclusively in English! This confirms the usual relationship between English and Jamaican in the advertising industry in Jamaica. Even when the main text of the ad is in Jamaican, the tag line is in English. This reinforces the notion that English is the ‘real’ language of commerce, carrying the official message.

In these two panels, there’s a circle of flags representing all the countries served by Caribbean airlines. In the centre of the circle are the words, ‘the Caribbean Identity’. This suggests the global circulation of Caribbean culture. And language is such a central element of culture.

What the complex Caribbean Airlines ad highlights is the fact that Jamaica is a bilingual country. Many of us claim both languages. Jamaican is our heart language. English is a useful inheritance that we shouldn’t devalue.

NOT-SO-GREAT BRITAIN

As Brexit tightens its noose around Britain, it’s clear that the Disunited Kingdom is rapidly losing the last vestiges of the political power it once enjoyed as a rapacious imperial overlord. But, for now, English is still a formidable global language facilitating cross-cultural communication. In the new world order, Jamaican is becoming a global language of cultural creativity. I can just hear the blood bursting in the brain of my usual critics as they suffer ‘strokes’ caused by that infuriating claim.

In response to my column last week, ‘Queen Mother Samad – Born an Grow Garveyite’, written in Jamaican, Clirey posted this comment on The Gleaner’s website: “The number of people who actually read and understand this can fit in a phone booth. So what’s the point?” K2B2 answered: “Unlike those who’ve expressed vitriol towards Dr Cooper’s treatment of our heart language, I actually appreciate her approach and can say definitively that I am among many who would fit in the ‘phone booth’ alluded to by a previous respondent. Why do we demonise our own language? Why, especially when so many others in the world are fascinated by it?”

The answer is simple. A lot of Jamaicans are suffering from a terminal case of congenital inferiority. They absolutely refuse to emancipate themselves from mental slavery, as Marcus Garvey urged. They cannot accept the fact that our ancestors created a brand new language that has been passed down from generation to generation. They don’t know that English was once the language of the ‘ignorant’ masses and French was the official language in England. They don’t realise that language is political. And language is as powerful as its speakers.

SONG AND DANCE

September 7 was the centenary of the birth of Louise Bennett-Coverley. On July 23, Minister of Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sport Olivia ‘Babsy’ Grange made this announcement in Parliament: “In a tribute to Miss Lou, the ministry has engaged the University of the West Indies to use the celebration of her life as the catalyst of a national dialogue on the status of our Jamaican patois.” It’s unfortunate that the minister is still using the old-fashioned term for the Jamaican language.

All the same, it is truly revolutionary that Minister Grange has acknowledged the fact that celebrating Miss Lou’s centenary must mean coming to terms with our national anxiety about the Jamaican language. Why is the language of the majority of Jamaicans still sidelined? Why is Jamaican not an official language? What does this say about our collective insecurity about our identity.

Last Sunday, The Gleaner published an excellent article by Professor Hubert Devonish with this provocative headline, ‘Is Miss Lou only song and dance?’ Our answer must be a resounding, “No!” Miss Lou is primarily about language and national identity. And until we come to terms with our complicated history of abuse and self-hatred, we will keep going around in circles, unable to break free from the past and embrace our future. Wi jos a fi dwiit!

- Carolyn Cooper, PhD, is a specialist on culture and development. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com. and karokupa@gmail.com