Carolyn Cooper | Nuh hitch up hitch up pon people
Snobbish speakers of English don’t seem to mind catching the coronavirus from ill-informed speakers of Jamaican. Last month, I wrote a column in our Jamaican language with this headline, “Holness Fi Gi Virus Warning Inna Two Language”. As was to be expected, the usual hostile responses were posted on The Gleaner’s website.
Most of the comments did not focus on the substance of my argument that some people just do not fully understand the virus messaging in English. Instead, there was the tired attack on the language I’d used. I had to laugh at Corey’s comment: “It look like seh COVID-19 tek ova Carolyn brain”. Ironically, he was using the virus-infected language he seemed to be mocking.
Another disdainful response mixed ungrammatical English with Jamaican. It was written by self-styled Operation Chaos: “Suh basically yuh deh seh some Jamaicans don’t understand not even di most basic of English? So suh Patwah/Patois fi chat den because majority of Jamaicans who understands English also do understand Patois to a larger degree. ‘Nutten no go so’”. That last sentence was a quote from the column in which I argued that, “Di politician dem love form fool like seh everybody eena Jamaica understand English. Nutten no go so”.
C Riley declared, “If any politician speak patois, in a capacity as a government minister, or PM, he or see [sic] should be booted out of office, at the next election. Can you imagine the Prime Minister, speaking gibberish in parliament? When are we going to stop this nonsense? Coming from the what I call, the any-thing-goes-crowd”.
LIE AN STORY
I did get a most welcome email from Shane Reid, President 2020 of the Junior Chamber International (JCI) Jamaica, asking if I would translate vital coronavirus messages into Jamaican. I consulted Susanna Campbell-Blagrove, a post-graduate student in Linguistics at The University of the West Indies, Mona, who double-checks my ‘Prapa-Prapa Spelin’ each month. This is what we came up with. Some of the translations were much easier than others.
Wash your hands!
Maintain social distancing!
Do not touch your face!
Cancel non-essential travel!
Do not spread fake news!
Wash yu hand dem!
Tan a yu yard!
Nuh hitch up hitch up pon people!
Nuh touch up touch up yu face!
Nuh bodder lef yu yard if a nuh nuh emergency!
No send round lie an story like seh a real-real news!
Wash yu an dem!
Tan a yu yaad!
No ich op ich op pan piipl!
No toch op toch op yu fies!
No bada lef yu yaad if a no no imorjensi!
No sen roun lai an tuori laik se a riil riil nyuuz!
COMPETENT IN BASIC ENGLISH
Loki posted this sceptical response to the column: “at this time i don’t think this is even relevant i doubt fully that there is even one Jamaican who does not understand things said in english even if dem caan read and write”. Let’s suppose that Operation Chaos and Loki are right and everyone in Jamaica understands basic English. Even so, I would bet my last dollar that virus messages would have much greater impact in Jamaican than English.
Take, for example, the phrase ‘social distancing.’ That is certainly not basic English. And it’s rather abstract. By contrast, the Jamaican translation is quite physical: “Nuh hitch up hitch up pon people”. It vividly conveys the idea that you should leave space between yourself and other people to avoid the risk of contagion.
Then, even in English, the phrase ‘social distancing’ is not entirely accurate to describe our present circumstances of cautious interaction. It is physical distance that should be maintained, not social. In this time of crisis, we need to narrow the social distance between ourselves and family and friends who can give us emotional support. I don’t know how some of us would survive if the Internet crashed.
OUT OF PLACE
There’s another meaning of social distancing that is evident in the responses to my call for bilingual virus warnings. It’s the class divisions that separate uptown and downtown, the literate and the illiterate, English and Jamaican. C Riley cannot even imagine the possibility of “gibberish” being spoken in Parliament. For him/her, the Jamaican language is completely out of place in respectable national institutions. Its habitual speakers must keep their distance.
And as for the claim of both Operation Chaos and Loki that all Jamaicans equally understand English! Social barriers appear to be levelled since we share a common language. But it’s not true that all Jamaicans understand English, however basic. The constant refusal to accept this fact is nothing but a perverse pretense at social equality.
I completely agree with Andy Beharie who commented that, “English should be learnt by all Jamaicans”. But our Ministry of Education hasn’t figured out yet how to teach English to all Jamaicans. In the meantime, we should use both English and Jamaican to stop the spread of the coronavirus. We should not need a global pandemic to force us to admit the truth. Jamaica is a bilingual country. Like it or not!
- Carolyn Cooper, PhD, is a specialist on culture and development. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.