“To handle a language skillfully is to practice a kind of evocative sorcery.”~Charles Baudelaire.
Welsh, it is often said, is the language of heaven. To be honest, it is mostly Welsh people who say this! It was my father’s first language, the language of home and church. It is a challenging language, full of strange sounds and grammatical rules, but the Welsh are a nation of singers, and even their speech is musical. His parents deliberately spoke Welsh to the children, but English to each other. In later years, his mother would just as deliberately speak Welsh to the sons who had married English girls, which of course upset my mother. But my father spoke, read and wrote in Welsh, and his English retained a slightly Welsh lilt, which was enhanced by the many Jamaican phrases he learned after moving to Jamaica in his forties. ‘And is true, you know.’ is how he would close his most unbelievable stories.
When I moved to Jamaica before the age of 8, one of my first challenges was learning to speak patois (patwah!). I put out my best effort, learning nouns and verbs and adjectives; sentence construction; pronunciation. It was not easy. Once I was told by a classmate that I shouldn’t bother to try. It didn’t sound good when someone of ‘high color’ (ie a white girl) spoke broken English. But that did not deter me. The first sentence that I remembered saying (coached by Carmen, our helper at the time) was a declarative one. Country, a local man whose job it was to pull the bell for church on Sundays, or to toll it when a church member died (the age of the person was counted out at the end at a faster speed, you would count to see if you could guess who it was), was the recipient of my first proud statement: ‘Me a nyam yam!’ I was particularly proud of that sentence since it was true, witty, and poetic. (I am eating yam – for those who may not have a Patwah-English dictionary handy). The fact that Country was both deaf, and a little mentally challenged did not diminish my pride.
Over the years, and despite discouragement and at times the laughter of those to whom I was speaking, I managed to sound more and more natural, incorporating more complex concepts and phrases. The Jamaican form of patwah is a thing of beauty, a living language that evolves as it goes, yet carries echoes of all who have spent time in Jamaica from way back in time. The name Jamaica was taken from an Amerindian word: Xaymaca, meaning land of wood and water. Some words are taken directly from a West African root. Some of the language sounds Victorian, relics of the colonizing force (people pack their clothes in a grip, not a suitcase). At times the words, though based in English, take on the cadence and form of the African words they translate from: mouth water for saliva; eye water for tears.
But Jamaican people as a whole; simply love words. They love to play with words and create phrases that are evocative or provocative. There are words that may be made up, or may have some origin in a language of the past, lost or changed in the retelling. Jamaican proverbs are used even though there is no modern translation. ‘Many mickle mek a muckle’ is used to remind you that it is ‘one one coco full basket’. In other words, it is the gradual gathering of small things that creates abundance. When I was learning the language, I often could use terms and phrases appropriately, without having any idea what I was saying. Like any child learning a spoken language, I could copy sounds, recognize context, without being able to explain what I was saying. But this is not unique to those who struggle with a foreign language. Jamaican children would be told things like: ‘chicken merry, hawk de near’, a warning that you may be laughing now, but trouble is brewing right around the corner. Some of the proverbs would only make sense much later in life.
It has been my pleasure over these past tumultuous weeks, to read on Facebook, the hilarious commentary of my friends, cleverly written in patwah to foil the agents of foreign and local governments. Facebook offers to translate, but patwah is predominantly a spoken language. There have been serious efforts over the past twenty years to have it declared the official language of Jamaica, and there is even a Patwah Bible. But because there is no official written version, the spelling rules depend upon the person who is writing it. It is written phonetically, but as we know, thanks to the English roots of the language, even that can vary according to the mood of the writer.
Louise Bennett Coverly was the first and most famous artist who shared Jamaican Patwah with the world, writing and performing poems in patwah. She took the everyday language of the common man and elevated it to an art form. While educated Jamaicans proudly and eloquently enunciated the Queen’s English with clipped tones in public, Louise Bennett regaled her audience with exciting and at times incomprehensible raw-raw patwah. Oh yes, another facet of patwah is the tendency to double up on adjectives for emphasis. Someone who is not very sensible is ‘fool-fool’. Someone who is weak is ‘fenky-fenky’ or even ‘fraidy-fraidy’.
In the present day the Jamaican love of words and word play means that those of us who live abroad, struggle to keep up. Often the word play is so sweet that other nations use it without giving credit to the originators. ‘Baby Daddy’? Jamaicans said it first. ‘Wicked!’ is an adjective meaning really good. Jamaicans said it first. ‘One Love’? Bob Marley said it first. It was the reggae artist Junior Reid who sang the song of unity: ‘One Blood’ to remind us that regardless of our country of origin or the color of our skin, we are all members of the human race, we all have one blood. I wonder if the Blood Bank who has taken it as their catchphrase pays him any royalties. ‘Irie’ – a word created by the Rastafarians to denote that ultimate sense of contentment – is used worldwide. Something that has been planned well, is said to be ‘criss and curry’. Go figure.
I am pretty sure that in modern times, if we needed a language to evade spies and translators, patwah would be the way to go. And we may soon need this! So translators, get ready to name your price! Finally your skills honed on Facebook, in tweets and WhatsApp will pay off, you will be in high demand! But meanwhile, please keep making us laugh with your ‘tory come to bump’ (things which have been festering beneath the surface are being seen in the light of day), keep ‘lyricsing’ us with your ‘sweet mout’, keep digging up some of those owl (old) Jamaican words that defy definition, that sound so sweet, and will never be found in that Patwah-English dictionary!
Have a wonderful weekend, Family! Walk good!