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    Caribbean: Miss Lou - Seriously.
    Thursday, August 31 @ 00:25:42 UTC
    CaribbeanBy Ras Clarke

    This is a difficult one. We Caribbeans are notoriously protective of our icons, institutions and exemplars. It is as though anything less than perfection will just not do, so we find it impossible to admit the tiniest dint in a 100% record. Worst of all, we seem to have no sense of humour about it, blurring the line between humanity and holiness. In Jamaica, Bob Marley jokes are simply not on, and don't you dare suggest any possibility that his attitude to women might have been a little unevolved. You could love his music and his wisdom a little more - the joke is not on. Brian Lara is one of Trinidad's sacred cows, and being his biggest fan is no protection if you tease his crankiness. Don't do it, boy.

    I admire the freedom with which satirists in some countries take on anyone and anything. Maybe the humour is sometimes extreme for my tastes, but the principle might be acceptable: real greatness is immune to satire, and sometimes an unpleasant truth can do more than a ton of gold-plated platitudes. That said, I have no issue with Louise Bennett-Coverly, nor her alter-ego Miss Lou, just a couple questions about her.

    Before that though, i would feel safer if I place on record my own admiration for and gratitude to Miss Lou for her life and work. I am, after all, both a Jamaican and a writer, and if that combination of adjectives has any value, it is thanks more to her than all who followed - combined. As a writer, I am grateful that she put our country on the literary map. As a Jamaican I am proud of how she put our thoughts in writing. As a performer, she has no equal, and I am among a generation or two who remembers her face and voice from live performances and TV, and cannot think of her except with affection.

    There have been a number of recurring themes in the abundant memoria on show over the last week or two. Incidentally, it has been noticeably less crass than usual, which might be to her credit. One recurring theme is the idea that she "legitimised" the "Jamaican language". Perhaps the better term to use is "making it respectable"; a people's speech is already legitimated by their use of it, right? So the term is "respectability". The idea recurring is that Miss Lou gave Jamaican patois (or patwa) respectability And the question is: really?

    I don't even want to take on the question of whether there is a Jamaican "language" a Jamaican "dialect" or a Jamaican "slang"; that is one for technicians. For our purposes, it should do to deal with Jamaican "speech", even when referring to the written form.

    But what is so respectable? What are our associations for Jamaican speech? First and foremost, the great lady herself, who flashed not only wit but intelligence and sensitivity. Unfortunately, the iconic image has her in the costume of the countrified domestic, sassy and subversive as ever, but literally, in the drag of a colonial-style servant.

    Alright, what about the Jamaican speech of Jamaican dancehall music? Is it just me, or does most of the memorable vocabulary consist of aggressive interjections, derogatives for women and homosexuals, and boastful descriptives for one's bling? Pervasive? Definitely. Respectable? You tell me.

    To non-Caribbeans the best-known association with Jamaican speech is the ubiquitous "no problem mon." A lot of Jamaicans find this one an utter mystery. Jamaicans only use such a round "a" in "man" when imitating tourists. And while we are capable of extreme cool under pressure, I hadn't noticed "no problem" being used with unusual frequency. Anyway, what's the association with "no problem, mon"? It's right there on the t-shirt: a shiftless beach bum toasting you with a liquor-laced coconut.

    Every now and then, somebody decides to publish in written Jamaican speech, and failure is consistent, for two reasons. First, there's no standard form. I am aware of two scholarly efforts to codify the pronunciation into writing, and neither works for me. It is extremely difficult to read. Of course, I was taught in English, so perhaps it's hard-wired. Various writers have their own usages, but fluent speakers can usually figure it out.

    Where does that leave us? My question was: did Louise Bennett give “respectability” to “Jamaican speech”? As near an answer as I can offer is this: without Miss Lou, Jamaican speech would not be an international staple, nor probably would Jamaican cuisine and music. I don’t think that this speech has what, in a language, I would call respectability. It’s associated with too many unpleasant or trivial things. I doubt that the solution is a series of novels in Jamaican, or a Jamaican-language bible; maybe we can make our speech respectable if we try harder to say more things that generate respect.

    Everybody who has been in Jamaican communications for more than a couple years has a Miss Lou story or two. Here’s mine, from the 1980’s: I arrived at my studio booking early, because I heard she was a stickler for time. She had agreed to voice a radio commercial for me, and I was all excited. Not surprisingly, she had a slew of improvements for my text, and when (ah, youth) I tried to excuse myself by saying that I always had trouble writing patwa. She laughed brightly at me, and (I remember her voice even now) “O lawks: you should write English then!”

    I hear and obey.


     
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