Today is International Mother Language Day – a day that was first conceived of by Bangladesh, and officially approved by UNESCO in 1999. It celebrates the native tongue, the vernacular that separates us from others. It is part of that which makes us unique, that delightful way in which we communicate – sharing our joys and concerns, our hopes, fears and dreams. We are happiest when we are baring our thoughts in our Mother Language – the language or dialect that we have been exposed to from birth; the language or dialect of our ethnic group. It is our first language, our dominant language, our home language. Arwe lub om.
Not surprisingly, one of the most adept speakers of our Mother Language is King Obstinate, he of one of our greatest calypsos – WET YUH HAND AND WAIT FUH ME, a fine exemplar of our Mother Language in all its glory. Sings the King, with obvious bemusement: “Two women cussin on Greenbay Hill / Ah go to work, come back, dey cussin still / Crazy Elim and Big Foot Maude /And lawd, meh lawd, how dey cussin hard /Ah-nah me tell you foo kill yuh man / Yuh buss-up he head wid wan fryin pan . . . . / Maude tell Miss Melvin to go / Ah melee yuh lub melee so . . . / Up came Elliman wid he food saucepan inside he han / Meh sure yuh see ah work meh-ah come from / Meh hungry, and meh want foo nyam / Ellen say, yuh-no hab no servant yah / Den Elliman put dong he food carrier / And he pelt a thump and she move out / And he bruk Maude false teet out she mout / Lemme go!!!! Aryou go dead bad; aryou go dead from red mout / Some ah aryou go dead wid aryou yeye open /Aryou go dead lacka Hash Rider and Arthur Bra Goat . . .” Hmmmm! Antigua dialect at its most descriptive and hilarious. It’s the graphic language of storytelling, unlike any other.
So, even though we were not physically there on Greenbay Hill that exciting morning, we can see in our mind’s eye the frenetic activity. Even though we were not able to “climb up a tambran tree to get closer to de activity,” we cannot help but burst forth with peals of laughter when “dey cuss all day and won’t stop, til dey end up in Charles Knight shop,” and the good Charles Knight had to chase them out thusly, ”Oh, lawd! Ah wha-mek aryou lub cuss so much? Aryou go ah chuch sometimes, nuh? Mind aryou nuh narsy-up meh sweet-oil and sudden!” Indeed.
It is manifestly a thing of beauty – our vernacular, our dialect. How wonderful it is for us to say, ‘nyam’ instead of ‘eat,’ ‘gimme’ instead of ‘give me,’ ‘ah foo me’ instead of ‘it is mine,’ ‘leggo’ instead of ‘let go,’ ‘gwaan’ instead of ‘go ahead,’ ‘meh lub yuh’ instead of ‘I love you,’ ‘meh want om’ instead of ‘I want it?’ Ah, hark the expressiveness, the vivid colours so evident in the way we express ourselves. Just look at the wonderful way in which we are able to convey to the listener the intensity of our feelings as in, “If yuh tink yuh bad, tek om up!” Those words, uttered in the vernacular, will disabuse the errant mind of all untoward notions. There is no mistaking the implicit threat.
Consider, if you will, the Honourable Sir Vere C Bird Sr., the father of the nation, who was a master at moving between the Queen’s English and our vernacular. Yes, the fluid movement of his utterances always added gravitas and humour (when necessary) to his speeches. For example, at an Antigua Trades and Labour Union public meeting, many years ago, he was able to serve up red meat for the faithful, by declaring to rapturous applause, “Ah because ah de Union dat arwe woman and dem nuh haffu wear bingo-bag drawers. Now dem can wear sexy bikini!” (Chuckle) On another occasion, during a heated discussion with the Antigua Syndicate folks, he was told that they were planning to sell all the Syndicate properties to white planters from Africa. To which, Papa VC retorted, “Foo do wha? Arwe nuh want dem yah.” The rest is history. He left that meeting and went out to negotiate a loan of some six million pounds from the Royal Bank of Canada to purchase all the Syndicate holdings. The people of Antigua own all the estate lands that were once part of the Syndicate. May those in high places remember that fact.
Look, folks, we could go on and on with wondrous examples of how our idioms have enriched our lives. Especially at Carnival time. For example, an old timer, who used to play mas’ back in the day, recently told this writer that some cheeky women used to dress in silky, transparent skirts with suggestive sentences inscribed in the vernacular on the back of their bloomers – eg: “Nuh-touch meh bam-bam!” Hmmmmm! Apparently, with the liquor flowing, and the music pulsating, the Caribbean’s most colourful summer festival (Antigua’s carnival) was a time for our vernacular to blossom and flourish. Seems, the things that we wanted to say, could not be adequately said in the Queen’s English. The Queen’s English, never mind that it is spoken in more countries and by more people around the world (1.132 million speakers, followed by Mandarin, 1.117 million) cannot adequately capture our euphoria, our sadness, our nuances. No wonder during Carnival, a few years ago, King Obstinate, in his classic, MONICA, declared “Gyal, yuh could dance . . . Yuh gyal, meh weary, meh warn foo siddong, . . . meh foot swell . . . Meh-nuh able wid you, gyal!”
And speaking of the Queen’s English. We understand that there is a translation of some sections of the Holy Bible into the Jamaican dialect. So much for King James. Good for the Jamaicans. We suggest that it will not be long before we have our Antiguan dialect versions of certain passages of scripture. And yes, our vernacular could also become a CXC subject, in the not-too-distant future. Clearly, the better our ability to communicate, the better our ability to move forward as a people. Remember, it was the inability to communicate effectively that led to confusion and lack of progress on the Biblical Tower of Babel. ‘Babel’ is the word synonymous with grandiose projects that will ultimately end in misunderstandings and failure. May our communications not be of the ‘Babel’ sort.
And a good start will be, arguably, by employing more of our vernacular. Just ask Sir Alexander Bustamante, who, in 1962, became Jamaica’s first Prime Minister. His messages resonated with the Jamaican people, the grassroots, because of his remarkable ability to nonchalantly switch between the Queen’s English and the vernacular. Jamaicans loved and admired him.
Noteworthily, it was our managing editor, Gemma Handy, who suggested that we write an editorial celebrating International Mother Language Day. Seems, Gemma, she of English extraction, is very much interested in employing and enjoying our vernacular. She has sometimes thrown dialect at this writer in the office, and is the source of some of our cartoon captions. She is a good student. (Chuckle) “So, if yuh tink she-nuh know wha a gwaan, yuh betta tink again.”
All hail, International Mother Language Day. It is who we are!
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