In April 2020, during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, I wrote a provocative column with this indelicate title, “Unspeakable Women Exposed”. This is how John H. Christian replied on The Gleaner website: “Excellent article Carolyn Cooper, only the English language could do it, with a handful of your beloved patios. [sic] to be able to paint such a picture…well done.. Now write the whole room in Patios [sic]..LOL…”
Translating a single newspaper column from English to Jamaican was a big joke for Christian. His laugh confirmed his utter ignorance of all the scholarly work that generations of linguists in the Caribbean and elsewhere have done to demonstrate the power of the Jamaican language. Christian obviously does not know that the New Testament has been translated into Jamaican. The West Indies Bible Society published Di Jamiekan Nyuu Testiment in 2012.
DO NOT TEST!
In response to Christian’s teasing, I wrote, “Thank you! Here is a quick translation of the first two paragraphs. Don’t keep putting limits on the Jamaican language! Do not test!” Here is the original English:
The proverbial wisdom confirms that when the man troubles tek, the pikni shirt suits him well. Now, when the coronavirus frightens the man, women’s underwear suits him. Male transvestites already know the pleasures of wearing feminine sportswear. These days, men of all persuasions wear panties and bras as masks to block the transmission of the virus.
‘Unmentionables’ first appeared in the English language in the 19th century during the reign of Queen Victoria. The word referred to pants. In 1910, it became even more unmentionable, that is, underwear. Why was underwear so vulgar that it couldn’t be mentioned in polite society?
I translated the title, ‘Female unmentionables out in open’, this way: “Uman hide and seek on the road”. And the rest of the translation went like this:
People of old seh when trouble tek dude, the pikni shirt suits him well. Today, when the coronavirus frightens man, a man’s drawers suit him. Di man dem weh love dress up inna uman clothes they know how sweet it is. Inna dem ya time, all kind a man brandish drawers and bra pon their face fi stop di virus from spread all combat.
Hide and seek affair. It was an English people who thought of a bra and drawers. Yu no fi talk about that. Dem seh dem deh an ‘unmentionables’. This word appeared in the English language in the 1800s when the beautiful and late Queen Victoria took the throne. Back then, unnameable meant pants. In 1910, a den yu could not talk about it. It starts fi means bra one drawers. Wa mek dem so raw chaw yu couldn’t talk about it if you were a tapanaaris?
‘HOW NOW BROWN COW’
I told this story on Thursday (January 27) when I was giving the 8th H. Pamela Kelly Distinguished Lecture at the University of Technology. The series is named in honor of one of the university’s outstanding educators. I focused on language, power and dis/advantage in Jamaica. Ms. Kelly certainly knows intimately the sense of alienation that many students endure in Jamaican schools. In an interview with me, she recalled the distress of her early years at Wolmer’s High School for Girls:
“I felt very disadvantaged because my language of the heart did not seem appropriate to me. I was more comfortable speaking Jamaican. And the school language was exclusively English. For almost three years, I didn’t speak more than necessary. But I read a lot of books in English and I knew how to write well. In speech therapy, I learned to round my mouth. We had to repeat phrases that often didn’t make sense to us, like “How now brown cow”.
“But, I suppose, the speech course was helpful. It taught me a certain register of English which served me well, especially in my role as a public speaker at the University of Technology. All the same, it would have been so much better if my heart language had been accepted. I wouldn’t have felt so insecure. Coming from Watt Town in rural Jamaica, a teacher who had been recruited from England told me more than once, “You can take the man out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the country.” man. Fortunately, I was not a man.
In 1995, Ms Kelly was asked to teach at the University of Technology for six weeks in place of a lecturer on maternity leave. She stayed there for 25 years. A decade earlier, she and Dr. Leonie Harris had established Target English, a private school where English was taught as a foreign language. The students came from all over the world: Venezuela, Haiti, Panama, Korea, France, Sweden, Japan and China.
At the University of Technology, Ms. Kelly applied the language teaching techniques she had perfected at Target English. In 2003 she established the Self Access Learning Centre, designed to help students who were not comfortable speaking or writing English. Ms. Kelly knew that teaching English as a second language would empower students whose heart language was Jamaican. The center served a wide range of the university community and was spectacularly successful. It later expanded to include other languages and is now called the Center for Language Teaching and Research.
The Ministry of Education must recognize the fact that Jamaican is a language. And it is the first language of the majority of primary school students. English must be taught as a second language. The ministry must admit that current methods of teaching English are failing Jamaican children. If the learning of English by all primary school pupils is indeed a target of the curriculum, the objective of the Ministry of National Education must certainly be much more precise.
– Carolyn Cooper, PhD, is a professor of English language and literature and a specialist in culture and development. Email your comments to [email protected] and [email protected]