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the status of Jamaican Patois: a “comparison” of a new New Testament with CUSS-CUSS by Louise Bennett-Coverley?

December 26, 2011

The BBC’s Robert Pigott reports that

Many … see the elevation of patois as a backward step for Jamaica, in a globalised world demanding English.

The presumed “elevation of patois” that Pigott is reporting on is a new New Testament translation project. In his article “Jamaica’s patois Bible: The word of God in creole,” Pigott gets at the fears that Patois will replace not only English but also Patois-English bilingualism.  The government is promoting use of English as a language of wider communication.  A group of NT translating linguists at the University of the West Indies in Kingston is creating a phonetic writing system and grammar that might give the status of a legitimate language to the creole.

What Pigott only hints at is that Patois already has status, that it already empowers its users, that it doesn’t necessarily threaten the use of English, that feminist-poet-educator Louise Bennett-Coverley started much.

The BBC reporter includes in his article a couple of videos of contrasts:  one video is of a discussion about the New Testament translation (with mostly and finally a male – a clergyman? – doing the talking) and the other video is of “[t]wo girls from St. Richard’s Primary School in Kingston Jamaica, [who] perform the Patois poem Cuss Cuss by Jamaican poet and activist Louise Bennett.”

An excerpt from “Luke, chapter one, verses 26-28” is given from the newly-transcribed Patois:

But in Pigott’s article, neither an English version of the Luke passage nor any written version of Bennett-Coverley’s poem “CUSS-CUSS” is provided.  Please find these below.

Here’s the New International Version in English 1984 [with the little update of 2011 inserted below in brackets]:

26 In the sixth month [of Elizabeth’s pregnancy], God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”

Now here is Bennett-Coverley’s Patois poem:

Gwan gal yuh fava teggereg,
Ah wey yuh gwine goh do?
Yuh an yuh boogooyagga fren
Dem tink me fraid o’ yuh?

Goh wey, yuh fava heng-pon-nail,
Is me yuh want fe trace?
Me is jus de one fi teck me han
An leggo pon yuh face.

Fe me han noh jine chu ch an me naw
Pay licen fe me mout’,
Me wi tell yuh bout yuh–se yah
Gal noh badda get me out.

Me noh know is wat kine o’ chu’ch
Fe yuh mout’ coulda jine,
Yuh lip dem heng dung lacka wen
Mule kean meck up him mine.

Gwan, me an yuh noh combolo,
Yuh foot shapeless an lang
Like smaddy stan far fiing dem awn
An meck dem heng awn wrang.

Fe yuh foot fava capital K,
Koo pon yuh two nose-hole!
Dem dis big an open out like
Miss Tane outsize fish bowl.

Goh wey, yuh kean bwile sof egg
But still yuh want get ring,
Noh man na gwine fe married yuh
Wen yuh kean do a ting.

Is grudge yuh grudgeful, me kean cook
But me ben goh dah good school,
Me got intelligency yuh
Illiterated fool !

Me sorry fe de man yuh get
De po’ ting hooden nyam
When you ackebus him salt-fish
An bwilivous him yam.

Now below are English translations of “CUSS-CUSS” (from respective bloggers here and here):

Not to be confused with Kas-Kas, this poem re-stages a tracing match (i.e. a quarrel) between two Jamaican women. Common cuss-words like “boogooyagga” (low-grade) “heng-pon-nail ” (bedraggled) are here liberally used. Opponents are sometimes subjected to the most unexpected similes as ” Yuh lip dem heng dung lacka wen Mule kean meck up him mine”.

Get away from here! you look like a vagabond!
What do you think you’re going to do?
You and your ragamuffin friends
assume I’m afraid of you?

Get out of here! You resemble clothes on a stick.
‘Tis me you really trying to disgrace?
I’m just the one to use my hand
and let it fly into your face.

My hands aren’t members of any congregation,
and I pay no license to communicate.
I will tell you about your — look here…
You better not get me irrate.

I don’t know which church
your mouth could have joined,
your lips hang off your face
like a mule that can’t make up his mind.

Go away, you and I aren’t friends!
Your legs are shapeless and long
as if someone threw them from a distance
and attached them quite wrong!

Your feet look like a capital K,
and just look at those nose holes!
they are big and wide,
just like Miss Tane’s oversized fish bowl.

Get out of here! You can’t even boil an egg
and yet you want a wedding ring?!
No man will want to marry you
When you can’t do a thing!

You’re too envious. I can’t cook
but I definitely go to a good school.
I have high intelligence
you illiterated fool!!

I’m so sorry for the man you get.
The poor soul would never eat a thing
when you ‘obliterate’ his rice,
and ‘illiterate’ his chicken wing.

Is the new NT translation really “elevating” Patois by giving this language a wider use?  Does the fact that students, particulary girls, in Jamaican schools know Louise Bennett-Coverley and her poetry by heart already give a status to Patois and an agency to these young people?  Is the translation project a continuation of the sorts of language promotion and education and feminist efforts of Bennett-Coverley?   Will there be the sort of embracing of the Patois New Testament as there was for this poet and her works?

Wikipediaists note her reception:

In 1974, she was appointed to the Order of Jamaica. On Jamaica’s Independence Day 2001, the Honorable Mrs. Louise Bennett-Coverley was appointed as a Member of the Jamaican Order of Merit for her invaluable and distinguished contribution to the development of the Arts and Culture. She wrote her poems in the language of the people known as Jamaican Patois or Creole, and helped to put this language on the map and to have it recognised as a language in its own right, thus influencing many poets to do similar things.

Now, the BBC has reported:

The New Testament has been completed by a team of translators at the Bible Society in Kingston. They intend to publish it in time for the 50th anniversary of Jamaica’s independence from Britain on 6 August next year.

Given this timing, what are the political implications?  What other long term changes, intended or not, might the new NT in Patois bring?  Has the BBC suggested that the Bible Society is doing for the first time some of the things that Bennett-Coverley is known for?  Is Pigott’s comparison of the Patois NT verses with lines from “CUSS-CUSS” really an inadvertant contrast?  What do you think?

6 Comments leave one →
  1. December 26, 2011 12:13 pm

    It is fascinating to see how different Caribbean countries view creole languages.

    I’ve never been to Jamaica. The Caribbean country I know best is Haiti; where Kreyol Ayisyen is widely accepted. Although French remains the official literary language of Haiti, there is a small Kreyol literature, including a translation of the Protestant Bible. It is simply not possible to get by in Haiti without knowing at least some Kreyol.

    Haiti’s official literacy rate is 54% (which sounds high to me — I believe that the real functional literacy rate is closer to 15%), the lowest in Western Hemisphere; and 85% of all college-educated Haitians live outside Haiti.

    As a bonus, knowing a bit of Kreyol is quite helpful when one goes to Miami, New York, Boston, or Montreal.

  2. December 27, 2011 10:31 am

    You’re right that how the peoples of the Carribbean view their own languages is fascinating. It’s important, too, that the questions of status remain indigenious. (I’m afraid I’m not the first to feel that Robert Pigott brings a slant to his BBC religious reporting. In this article where he brings in Louise Bennett-Coverley, Pigott seems to be either sloppy — i.e., finding the video of the two schoolgirls reciting “Cuss Cuss” and inserting it to flesh out his thin story a bit — or sneaky, in which case he’s tapping into Jamaican disagreements about the statuses of “Jamaican” or Patwa and is justifying not only the English/British colonization of the people from 1655 to 1962 but also the continued patronization of the English language in this context. Some have noted that Pigott, for BBC, seems a bit infatuated with this story on the translation of the NT for whatever reason; this blogger reposting the story at least frames it as “Robert Pigott reports on the controversial new Bible translation into Jamaican patoi.”)

    Literacy is a real question as it relates to “Patwa.” And that question largely affects the literary status of several poets and musicians and religious leaders and laypeople of Jamaica. (Full disclosure: I’ve not myself been to Jamaica but was in high school with three good friends whose father was ambassador of Jamaica to the nation where we lived and studied together. My Jamaican buddies used English and also spoke and sang Dread-talk or Livalect — of Rastafarians mainly — as well as Patwa used in many many Jamaican homes. The politics of the status of these came out when they referred to music and to poems by some of their local heroes. That their parents did embassy work and mine did American evangelical Christian emmisary or missionary work was a fun point of dicussion for us. It’s been wonderful to catch up with them after secondary schooling, after so many many years, via facebook. Alas, we still only speak English together. BTW, if one googles Jamaican and Patwa and literacy and the like, you can definitely find expressions of attitudes toward the status of these languages among Jamaican peoples.)

  3. May 17, 2012 5:17 pm

    As a Jamaican-American resident in New York, and a retired educator of students who are native speakers of languages (and dialects) other than English, I wholeheartedly endorse the current efforts of Robert Pigott to have the Bible translated in Jamaican (or, as some would name the language, Jamaican Creole) . For me, the name “Jamaican Patrois” has too many colonial baggages that, ironically, would continuously ‘weigh down’ the language rather than to elevate IT — the desired goal. Trained in linguistics (particularly psycholinguistics), I recognize the vast merits of preserving the language by having it rendered with a formal Creole orthography — as is the case with Haitian (or Haitian Creole) now used as a medium of instruction, along with English in New York State’s public schools. For those who are ‘reticent’ to have the Holy Bible translated in Jamaican, may I suggest a friendly reminder that English, or any other European or Asian language is not the original language of the Bible, but Hebrew and Aramaica — and later Greek and Latin, etc. Yet with all of these translations, the Holy message remains uncompromised. So indeed it will be with the Bible translated in Jamaican (Jamaican Creole). One other important observation: Elevating Jamaican to be a language with a formal standardized orthography in no way compromises the prestigious status of English. It only proudly demonstrates the island of Jamaica to be fully and formally bilingial: Good for business, good for education, good for national pride and culture!

    Karl C. Folkes, Ph.D.
    Alliance Theological Seminary
    Nyack, New York
    May 17, 2012

  4. May 18, 2012 3:32 pm

    Karl — Thanks for your thoughts. I am sorry your comment was stuck for a while in our comment queue.

  5. May 18, 2012 4:06 pm

    Yes, thanks for your comment. Thanks also for emailing briefly.

    I hope you notice that this post is my complaint that Robert Pigott is reporting nothing new by recycling this report of his. He’s also done no service to Louise Bennett-Coverley even by showing the video of “[t]wo girls from St. Richard’s Primary School in Kingston Jamaica, [who] perform [her] Patois poem Cuss Cuss.” Notice that it is not Pigott who would “have the Bible translated in Jamaican (or, as some would name the language, Jamaican Creole).” And it is Pigott who, despite what you protest, uses “the name ‘Jamaican Patrois’ [sic]” with his (as you put it) “many colonial baggages.”

    I’ve asked 8 or 9 questions at the end of my post. Two are key: Has the BBC [through Pigott’s sloppy and no-new news reporting] suggested that the Bible Society is doing for the first time some of the things that Bennett-Coverley is known for? Is Pigott’s [only implicit] comparison of the Patois NT verses with lines from “CUSS-CUSS” really an inadvertant contrast?


  1. Weird Bibles 5: Jamaican Patois Bible « BLT

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