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'Corruption of language is no cultural heritage'

Published:Sunday | March 18, 2012 | 12:00 AM
Carolyn Cooper

Carolyn Cooper, Contributor

That headline was classic Morris Cargill. In his Sunday Gleaner column published on October 29, 1989, Cargill mockingly made his case for banning 'Patois': "The slackness and anarchy of Patois reflects itself (sic) in the slackness and anarchy of our society in general. We are as we speak and we speak as we are."

That 'sic' is not a bad dog I'm setting on Cargill's duppy. It's a sign of a grammatical slip that could be mistaken for a typing error. 'Sic' is Latin, meaning 'thus, so'. In this context, it means, 'a so Cargill write it'. The subject of the sentence is plural - 'slackness and anarchy - so the form of the verb should also be plural - 'reflect'. And, of course, 'itself' should then be 'themselves'. The passive voice would have been even better: "The slackness and anarchy of Patois are reflected in ... ."

I don't usually draw attention to grammatical errors in public, except in the classroom. I don't set out to embarrass speakers who are not competent in English; not even duppies. I don't idolise English. It's just a useful tool of communication like every other language across the globe. But since Morris Cargill used to make such a big point about English 'correctness', I think it's quite appropriate in this instance to show him up.

In that contemptuous column, Cargill attempted to ridicule the lucid arguments made by Dr Mertel Thompson in support of bilingual education for Jamaican students. For more than two decades, Dr Thompson taught English at the University of the West Indies, Mona. She certainly understood the complexities of language teaching and learning in Jamaica.

Last week, Dr Thompson was laid to rest. At her funeral service, her son, Douglas, reminded the congregation of Cargill's tongue-in-cheek assessment of the value of his mother's academic work. And he humorously predicted that Mertel would be giving Morris language lessons in heaven.

On Earth, Cargill paid no attention to the rigorous scholarship of all the linguists who have given clear evidence that Jamaican is, indeed, a language. For example, the Trinidadian linguist Mervyn Alleyne explains in his book 'Roots of Jamaican Culture' how the new language developed:

"[B]ecause Africans speaking different languages and coming from different parts of West Africa needed to communicate both among themselves and (less so) with Europeans (in this case, English people, themselves speaking different dialects and coming from different parts of the United Kingdom), their language changed. First, the vocabulary is discarded, then the morphology, then the syntax, and finally the phonology; within phonology the old intonation pattern apparently lasts longest."

Pure Jamaican

In less technical language, Louise Bennett's 'Aunty Roachy' gives a much more subversive account of the process. She doesn't use those big Latin/Greek words: 'vocabulary' (words); 'morphology' (structure); 'syntax' (word order) or 'phonology' (sound). It's pure Jamaican: "Aunty Roachy seh dat if Jamaican dialect is corruption of de English language, den it is also a corruption of de African Twi language to, a oh!

"For Jamaica dialect did start when we English forefahders 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 forefahders couldn understan what we African ancestors-dem wasa seh to dem one anodder!

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

Unlike 'Aunty Roachy' and Dr Thompson, Morris Cargill had no respect for the Jamaican language. He dismissed those of us who, as he put it, "would like to see Patois retained as part of our cultural heritage, and believe that it can occupy that honourable place alongside the teaching of standard English".

'A lousy heritage'

Cargill made his own position absolutely clear: "I, on the other hand, take the view that if it is what is called 'our cultural heritage,' it is a lousy heritage redolent of slavery and that if we keep on saying it is a great thing, it merely encourages its continued use until it will finally swamp what remains of standard English in Jamaica. Of necessity, most people have inherited Patois, but I see no reason to make a virtue of necessity."

Making a virtue of necessity, I knew that it was imperative to respond to Cargill; and in Jamaican. Too often we defend the Jamaican language in English. I also decided to use the writing system designed for the language by the Jamaican linguist Frederic Cassidy. My response to Morris Cargill's column was published in The Sunday Gleaner on November 5, 1989. This is how I launched my counter-attack:

Wat a nais bakra man Misa Cargill iz, iing! Luk ou im so sari fi puor ignarant blak piipl! No waant no huol hiip a bakwod piipl dis a waak-waak bout Jamieka a iikwal op demself, a gwaan laik se dem a taak langgwij jos laik im, a fuul op demself. Nuo, man! Misa Cargill waant di huol a wi fi nuo wi plies. Im waant wi fi nuo se wi kom iin laik pus an daag: wi kyan baak an bait an mek naiz an shuo se wi beks, an kin wi tiit. Bot langgwij? Kolcha? Wa niem so? Wi no nuo dem de hai wod, maasa. Dem briid a wod ongl paas out a bakra mout.

These days, The Gleaner would never publish on the editorial page a column written entirely in Jamaican. Believe me, I have tried. We have flag independence. Yet we continue to suffer from mental slavery. Claiming the power of the language we have created on this Jamrock would be a big step on the long journey to full freedom.

Carolyn Cooper is a professor of literary and cultural studies at the University of the West Indies, Mona. Visit her bilingual blog at Email feedback to and