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Writing Ms. Lou Right: Language, Identity, and the Official Jamaican Orthography

Whenever, in a debate, one Jamaican says to another Jamaican that they didn’t write a Jamaican word “right”, it is usually the case that their yardstick for correct Jamaican orthography is based on the writing style of Ms. Lou. Louise Bennett’s collection of work stretches across some six decades, beginning in the years leading up to Jamaica’s independence in 1962 and into the new millennium. Her cultural impact in the areas of poetry, prose, stage performance, and language advocacy have established her as the veritable “Queen” of Jamaican culture and an authority on the origin and usage of the Jamaican language. A longitudinal survey of Ms. Lou’s work throughout the years, especially in the case of her poetry, reveals that the orthography is not as consistent as some would think. Essentially, even as Ms. Lou’s style of writing Jamaican is treated by some as the gold standard for Jamaican orthography, its inconsistencies serve to embolden critics who feel a written form of the language is pointless.

The Relevance of Writing Systems

Writing has been a part of human civilizations for over 5000 years ever since the Sumerians in ancient Mesopotamia started to use chisels to carve into stone in around 3500 BCE. While writing systems are useful, it is important to point out that many languages are born, live a long life, and eventually die without ever adopting a writing system. Writing is not synonymous with language; it is merely a visual representation of speech. A case in point is children who are learning the writing system of English for the first time who are told that English has five vowels. This, of course, is not accurate; the English writing system has five letters which -- depending on your regional dialect of English -- can represent up to sixteen different vowel sounds. Writing systems facilitate the preservation of cultural knowledge, the transmission of literacy, and the modernization of commerce. Yet, the absence of a writing system does not strip away languagehood -- a language is still a language without a writing system.

The writing system for Jamaican Creole was first published in 1967 with the release of the Dictionary of Jamaican English compiled by Jamaican lexicographer Fredrick Cassidy. The background work to compile the dictionary started in 1955, and Cassidy made a point to survey Jamaicans from across the breadth of the island to collect as many words and meanings as possible. The lexicon spanned a wide range of Jamaican words from the archaic to modern, many of them indigenous to Jamaica, some with their West African roots still intact, but all of them authentically Jamaican. Cassidy was however faced with a decision while compiling the dictionary - how will the words be written in such a way that they accurately capture their pronunciation and clearly show that the language is different from English as opposed to merely a “bad” version? A Jamaican writing system would have to be developed.

Developing a new writing system for a language involves two main choices - use phonetic symbols or use an alphabet. The benefit of using phonetic symbols, such as those represented in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is that it would capture all the various ways speech is produced in Jamaica since the IPA is designed to capture all the ways speech is produced in all languages. Incidentally, this is also the downside. Speaking is much more variable than writing - no two persons pronounce words exactly alike in all contexts, all the time. Indeed, there is even variability in how the same speaker will produce a word as they move from one context to another (e.g. formal vs jovial), and from one emotional or psychological state to another (e.g. happy to pensive to fearful, etc). A writing system, however, needs to be consistent between all speakers of the same language regardless of these changes. As such, the IPA would not serve as a suitable writing system, not least of all because the symbols are quite complex.

The next obvious choice then is to use an alphabet with letters instead of phonetic symbols. Again two more choices arise - to continue using the informal writing system based on the spelling of English (the one used by Ms. Lou) or to develop a new alphabet specific to Jamaican speech. The informal style of writing Jamaican speech, made popular by Ms. Lou, has the benefit of familiarity. Aside from being prominent in Ms. Lou’s poetry, it has been adopted by other poets and authors and is featured from time to time in cartoons published by the national newspapers. This writing system, however, is highly variable. There is no official document or resource each author can draw from when representing Jamaican speech and as such, each writer simply improvises as they go along. This problem is compounded even more now in the digital age as more persons are representing Jamaican speech in electronic formats. With no reliable benchmark, what emerges is a “chaka-chaka” writing system which is susceptible to the whims of each individual writer. The final obvious solution then is to construct a uniquely Jamaican writing system from the ground up.

The Writing system for Jamaican Creole

The Cassidy Writing system for Jamaican Creole, first published in the Dictionary of Jamaican English 1961 was updated in 2009 by the Jamaican Language Unit (JLU) at the University of the West Indies, Mona with the release of the instructional manual “Writing Jamaican Right.” This manual laid out the writing system in a user-friendly textbook inclusive of exercises, readings, and an audio CD. The main differences between the informal writing system based on English and the official Cassidy/JLU writing system can be summarized thus:

  1. In the Cassidy/JLU writing system, one letter has only one sound. In the informal English writing system, one letter may have several sounds.

  2. The Cassidy/JLU writing system has no silent letters - all letters are pronounced. The informal English writing system has many silent letters.

  3. Some letters are not used in the Cassidy/JLU writing system such as c,q,x since these are replaced by other letters, and h does not occur unless in the form of a double consonant.

The full alphabet chart with examples is below:

As seen in the diagram above, the Cassidy/JLU writing system has a separate representation for each vowel sound - twelve in total - and uses duplicate letters to indicate lengthened vowels. Some consonantal sounds make use of two letters. The “hn” symbol indicates that the vowel has a nasal quality.

Though the writing system made its debut in the 1960s, it was never formally taught in public schools and as such generations of Jamaicans grew up without the benefit of learning the official writing system for their native language. The publication of the JLU manual in 2009 has made the writing system much more accessible, and its usage has increased due to attempts by authors to incorporate more of the writing system into their work, but by and large, there is still no national drive to popularize the writing system. It is simultaneously the best way to represent Jamaican speech and the method that is least used by the majority.

Writing Ms. Lou Right

It is tempting to ask how differently things would’ve been if Ms. Lou were using the Cassidy writing system all along. The fact that she even decided to represent Jamaican speech in written form was already an act of subversion, so she wouldn’t have been any worse off. At worst, it might have taken the reading audience slightly longer to acclimatize to this style of writing, which would not have been problematic seen as how Ms. Lou’s work is usually enjoyed orally. But eventually, what would seem strange and unusual would become natural and second nature. In order to learn Ms. Lou’s poetry to perform at drama festivals, students in primary school would first have to be introduced to the writing system. It would only be a matter of time before the writing system would be at a stage of national saturation all so that the beauty of Ms. Lou’s work could be unlocked. Indeed, we stand to lose nothing if this initiative is undertaken now and we start to write Ms. Lou right.

One of Ms. Lou’s themes in her role as language advocate was to drive home the point that the Jamaican language, Patwa, is in no way less a language than any other, least of all the English language of Jamaica’s former colonizer. She urged Jamaicans to be proud of the language and the fact that it served as a powerful tool of cultural transmission. She maintained, contrary to public opinion, that Patwa was not a bad version of English, but instead a language in its own right. It is for this reason, we should promote the use of an original writing system for the language, rather than one fashioned on a bad version of the English writing system.

To this end, I close by reprinting the first stanza of Ms. Lou’s “Dutty tough” first in its original version from her book Jamaica Labrish, then the same stanza using the Cassidy/JLU writing system:

“Dutty tough” (original with informal writing system)

Sun a shine but tings no bright;

Doah pot a bwile, bickle no nuff;

River flood but water scarce, yawl

Rain a fall but dutty tough.

“Doti tof” (modified with Cassidy/JLU writing system)

Son a shain bot tingz no brait,

Duo pat a bwail bikl no nof,

Riva flod bot waat skiers yaa!

Rien a faal bot doti tof.

Clive Forrester

Dept. of English Language and Literature

University of Waterloo.

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