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