Sun | Jan 20, 2019

Telling tales out of school

Published:Sunday | November 14, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Carolyn Cooper, Contributor

What does 14th-century English literature and contemporary Jamaican dancehall 'orature' have in common? I was provoked to reflect on this seemingly foolish question in response to a penetrating remark made by a well-intentioned colleague.

Last month, the Department of Literatures in English at the University of the West Indies, Mona, hosted a royal send-off for Dr Victor Chang who has recently retired after 32 years. In 1978 when Victor came back to Jamaica to teach, the immigration officer who processed him announced, "You going in the wrong direction, man!"

This, of course, was a reference to the large numbers of short-sighted people who were taking up Michael Manley's foolish invitation to leave Jamaica if they couldn't put up with democratic socialism. The immigration officer seemed to have assumed that Victor was the stereotypical businessman who ought to be fleeing Jamaica.

Victor not only came home to stay but had a distinguished career at the university as a teacher, administrator, editor and creative writer.

We're all hoping he'll soon finish his novel set in the 'Chinese shop' where miracles often occur: sixteen ounces of salt fish can become five four-ounce packages after being soaked in water!

One of Victor's favourite courses focused on the works of the 14th-century English man of letters, Geoffrey Chaucer, who wrote the famous Canterbury Tales. So we dubbed the evening of tributes, 'Tales to the Teller'. I volunteered to do the 'Prologue' and, of course, composed it in 'olde' English with Jamaican words here and there since Victor was born in rural Jamaica and is a master of the vernacular.


This is how I began:

When cruel Huracan

Dread Carib God of wind and storm and fire

Breaks the long drought of the year's beginning

And drunken rainy season drowns the earth

In celestial liquor that hath demonic power

Uprooting unruly houses on Mavado's gully banks;

When breeze blow, with its foul breath

Wreaks destruction on the farmers' crops

And all di Christmas food wash weh;

Then do folk long to go on a pilgrimage

To get a bath and seek relief from carnage.

My tropical inversion of Chaucer's celebration of April as the season of rebirth and pilgrimages inspired one of my colleagues to say something like this: People who think you only know about dancehall will be surprised to see that you are also versed in 14th-century literature! 'Dog nyam yu supper when people start to stereotype yu'.

But when you think about it, the world of Chaucer and Jamaican dancehall culture are not all that different. Chaucer ran a very big romping shop. The Wife of Bath's Tale, for example, would make Spice and Kartel look like 'prentice shopkeepers. In fact, The Wife of Bath's Tale would put a blushing Lady Saw right out of business.

Here's a modern English version of some of the words of wisdom recited by the lecherous Wife of Bath. On the subject of virginity she declares:

"Men may advise a woman to be one,

But such advice is not commandment, no;

He left the thing to our own judgment so.

For had Lord God commanded maidenhood,

He'd have condemned all marriage as not good;

And certainly, if there were no seed sown,

Virginity - where then should it be grown?"

By the time the 'hotty-hotty' Wife of Bath comes to tell her lascivious tale, she has passed through five husbands. Sounding like a modern woman who sacrifices sexual satisfaction for material security, the Wife of Bath acknowledges the shortcomings of the rich old men she has bedded:

"I will tell truth of husbands that I've had,

For three of them were good and two were bad.

The three were good men and were rich and old.

Not easily could they the promise hold

Whereby they had been bound to cherish me.

You know well what I mean by that, pardie! [To God!]"

No viagra

If you don't know well what the Wife of Bath means, the answer is that the rich old men had unreliable equipment. And there was no Viagra in the 14th century. I suspect, though, that even then there must have been widespread knowledge of herbal cures for erectile dysfunction since human nature hasn't changed much over the centuries.

The highly sexed Wife of Bath makes it quite clear that she has no intention of being a submissive wife:

"We love no man that guards us or gives charge

Of where we go, for we will be at large."

In this same large and in charge, irreverent spirit she ends her tale with a wicked prayer:

"and Jesus to us send

Meek husbands, and young ones, and fresh in bed,

And good luck to outlive them that we wed."

Chaucer's tales are not just about sexual looseness. Another striking parallel between dancehall lyrics and the literary works of Geoffrey Chaucer is their common use of the supposedly 'vulgar' vernacular. Chaucer is rightly dubbed the father of English literature because he chose to use English, the language of the 'unschooled' masses, instead of French or Latin, as the language of literary expression.

Just like Chaucer, 'whole heap' of Jamaican writers and singers and DJs have demonstrated the power of their 'owna' language: Claude McKay, Louise Bennett, Lorna Goodison, Olive Senior, Velma Pollard, Michael Thelwell, Erna Brodber, Edward Baugh, Mervyn Morris, Joan Andrea Hutchinson, Amina Blackwood Meeks, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Buju Banton, Anthony B, Tanya Stephens and on and on. 'No high time wi tek fi wi language serious'?

Carolyn Cooper, PhD, is a teacher of English and an advocate of Jamaican language rights. Visit her bilingual blog, Jamaica Woman Tongue, at Feedback may be sent to or