Fri | Dec 9, 2022

Carolyn Cooper | Emancipating the Jamaican language lickle-lickle

Published:Sunday | August 7, 2022 | 12:09 AM

On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Independence, my sister, Donnette Cooper, was asked to read one of the lessons at the annual church service jointly sponsored by the Embassy of Jamaica and the Jamaican Community of Washington. As a member of the organising committee for the service, she made the point that the Jamaican language could be used for even one of the Scripture readings.

Di Jamiekan Nyuu Testiment had not yet been published. It came out four months later in December 2012. But there were Jamaican scholars at home and in the diaspora who could have translated the biblical texts into Jamaican. From the original Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic, no less! In the Washington metropolitan area, there was Dr Bertram Melbourne, a professor of Biblical Language and Literature at the Howard University School of Divinity.

Proverbial wisdom confirms that nutten nuh happen before di time.

Last Sunday, 43 years after the Independence service was first held, one of the Scripture lessons was read in the Jamaican language. It was entirely appropriate that Donnette was asked to do the honours. She read 1 Corinthians 13, Paul’s Epistle on love, from Di Jamiekan Nyuu Testiment.


As Donnette was rehearsing the reading, she told me she didn’t want the congregation to laugh. The Epistle was not comedy and she intended to read with the seriousness the text deserved. That was a lost cause. As soon as she said, “Mi a go read inna fi wi language,” the congregation immediately responded with laughter. It didn’t seem to be embarrassment at hearing our yard language in a formal setting. It appeared to be appreciation. The church service can be accessed on the embassy’s Facebook page and Donnette’s reading starts at approximately minute 53:

After the service, several members of the congregation shared with Donnette their response to hearing the Epistle in the Jamaican language. One woman said words to this effect: “Oh, is di first time mi understand dat scripture. Mi never hear it like dat before. Mi got di meaning.” The congregation’s spontaneous laughter didn’t tell the whole story. There’s a very serious issue of miscommunication that must be taken into account.

Many speakers of English like to insist that everybody in Jamaica is competent in the official language. That is their way of shutting down conversations about the need to accept the fact that Jamaica is a bilingual country. They don’t want to admit that speakers of the Jamaican language are often excluded from access to vital information that is given exclusively in English. Dem don’t get di meaning. And it’s just too bad for them.


Rev Karen Kirlew delivered the sermon at the church service. In 2018, she became the first woman to be elected as president of the Jamaican Baptist Union, 170 years after it was established. She’s one powerful woman. And in the very first words of her sermon she honoured another outstanding Jamaican woman:

“One of Jamaica’s greats, Louise Bennett, Miss Lou, gained recognition in Jamaica and the Caribbean due to a career of writing poems in dialect. Now Miss Lou wrote at a time when nationhood was in view, that is during the era of decolonisation and Independence in Jamaica. Her task was to conserve the culture of the Jamaican people. So she played a significant role in keeping Jamaican culture alive, especially in the face of a rejection of what was truly Jamaican by our colonisers.”

Rev Kirlew acknowledged the fact that despite the decades-long work of Louise Bennett to demonstrate the power of the Jamaican language, there was sustained resistance to accepting it as a legitimate expression of cultural identity. The language was seen as a sign of inferiority: “Any thought others had of greatness in you was diminished, especially when you were found to be speaking a certain way, our own language.”


The 60th anniversary of Independence should be a time of reflection on how we can make Jamaica a much more inclusive society. The theme for the commemoration is ‘Reigniting a Nation For Greatness’. Couldn’t the powers that be have come up with a more appealing vision that would inspire a wide cross-section of the society? I bet that if you ask most people outa road what ‘reigniting’ means, you would not get many correct answers.

Reigniting literally means beginning to burn again. Do we really want to go up in flames? I do know that reigniting is supposed to be symbolic. Not destructive fire but, instead, positive energy! But still, it’s an unfortunate image. Like the proverbial mouse, politicians seem to think that fire is a cool breeze at their tail. They should listen to Baby Cham and Bounty Killer’s incendiary “Song for the people.” It’s a bloody warning that people are fed up with the state of Jamaica. We don’t want any more fire. And why ‘a Nation’? The indefinite article, ‘a’, is very vague. It could mean any nation. Why not ‘our Nation’? Because we don’t all belong ya so?

For Jamaica 60, we should have created a bilingual theme – both English and Jamaican. It would have made such a powerful statement about how we see ourselves as an Independent nation. We cannot continue to pay lip service to Emancipation while remaining trapped in colonial definitions of who we should be. We must claim our identity as a bilingual nation. Not lickle-lickle, but all at once!

Politicians must concede that if the Jamaican language is an appropriate tool of communication for election campaigns, it should also be recognised as appropriate for the business of Parliament. It makes absolutely no sense to erect a statue of the Hon Louise Bennett-Coverley in Gordon Town if the language she advocated has no formal place on any occasion in Gordon House.

Carolyn Cooper, PhD, is a teacher of English language and literature and a specialist on culture and development. Email feedback to and