Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Fred Cassidy and Jamaican

Fred Cassidy (1907–2000) is best known among linguists as the moving force behind the Dictionary of American Regional English. A decade after his death, this enormous work is still not quite finished. Publication of the fifth and final volume, S–Z, is expected next year.

But Cassidy had another string to his bow. Creolists and people interested in West Indian English know him as the joint author of the Dictionary of Jamaican English (CUP: first edition 1967, second edition 1980), and also of an earlier popularization, Jamaica Talk (London: Macmillan, 1961). I studied both in great detail when I was working on my PhD on Jamaican pronunciation in London. Cassidy’s DJE co-author, Bob Le Page, was my external examiner.

As well as being a remarkable work of historical scholarship, the DJE also introduced the world to the orthography Cassidy invented for Jamaican Creole. This can actually be seen as an English spelling reform designed explicitly for JC. It is a phonemic notation, and uses some English letter combinations in ways that are logically chosen but at first can seem surprising. For example, the Jamaican FACE vowel, although a monophthongal [eː] in educated or ‘acrolectal’ Jamaican, is an opening diphthong of the [ɪɛ] type in popular or ‘basilectal’ Jamaican. Cassidy therefore writes it ie. But this means that the reader has to be able to interpret pie as the word we usually spell pay, and bied as either bathe or beard (homophonous for most Jamaicans).

When I was working on JC, people — Jamaicans, particularly — thought that to study it was a strange and eccentric thing to do. The intervening forty-odd years have seen a revolution in attitudes towards the local language/dialect/patwa, and we have now reached the stage where a local company, with the support of the Jamaican Language Unit of the University of the West Indies, is putting out video clips in which the language formerly used only on informal occasions is now used formally. Here is a serious-minded account of Haiti and its troubles, all narrated in JC. Key sentences are flashed on the screen in Cassidy’s orthography.
A Fi Di Piipl is produced by the Jamaican Language Company in association with the Jamaican Language Unit. This video, presented and narrated in Jamaican (Creole), takes its theme from the January 2010 disaster in Haiti, and from the perspective of a neighbouring country, seeks to understand the history of Haiti and its role in the world.


In ordinary spelling and standard grammar, this would be Because after the earthquake CARICOM was doing a large amount (a whole heap) to help out the country. (Don’t ask me why h is preserved in whole but dropped in heap and help.) The name of the series, A Fi Di Piipl, means “it’s for the people”.

Some years before his death, Cassidy was visiting London and invited me to dinner at his hotel. His main purpose was to try and persuade me to become active in the movement to reform English spelling. I suppose it is partly because of this arm-bending that I am now president of the Spelling Society.

12 comments:

  1. I don't think studying JC (or any other subject) should be seen as strange, but isn't it a bit unfair to mislead people by charitably and artificially changing tags? Weren't ordinary Jamaicans right in their instinctive views about appropriateness?

    ReplyDelete
  2. @ Anonymous: Why don't you say who you are before making any accusations, you dirty rat!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Five hundred years ago, Anonymous, Frenchmen were wondering why anyone would want to study French as opposed to just speaking it. After all, wasn't Latin the appropriate language of scholarship, to the point where "knowing grammar" and "knowing Latin" were synonymous?

    ReplyDelete
  4. John, would you say that the inevitable fragmentation of Latin (if it ever existed "one" Latin) was preferable to its survival? Do people need to feel humiliated when they stick, in the appropriate circumstances, to the most widely accepted varieties of THEIR OWN mother tongue?
    I think it would be wonderful if we could all speak the same language (English or any of the corrupted by-products from Latin).

    ReplyDelete
  5. By 1500 it was no longer possible to regard French as a less widely accepted variety of Latin, though certainly people who wanted to be understood outside France were still writing in Latin. French as French had been in existence for seven centuries. The question was not the validity of the French language as an object, but as a subject of study.

    Certainly there is no reason (and no likelihood) of feeling humiliated because you use Standard English. But there is no reason to feel humiliated because you use a different language such as Jamaican Creole either.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I agree, John, but again, don't you think that artificially bringing a reduced variety (of a language) to the status of the most prestigious one is paradoxically unfair to the speakers of the former? If language is an arbitrary tool which developes arbitrarily, why not unify instead of disintegrate?

    ReplyDelete
  7. Like "Common-core" Irish? Or Israeli Hebrew? Or at a pinch Esperanto? (And I do know and love Esperanto.)

    ReplyDelete
  8. I was thinking more of RP, perhaps? It sounds nice to me, and I've been studying it too long now (for God's sake!)

    ReplyDelete
  9. What sort of unification is that? If it's a prestigious variety you're after, think of the prestige Mid-Atlantic could have! The rest of the English-speaking world would be clamouring for an opt-in!

    And what has been happening to unification, however prestigious, in Eastern Europe?

    ReplyDelete
  10. I like your style Mallamb, but I'm afraid it's over my head. That's because I've neglected almost every aspect of language in favour of pronunciation (RP to be precise). And now you refuse to adjust to my vision of what the English speaking world should be!

    ReplyDelete
  11. Isn't he/she a dirty rat?

    ReplyDelete
  12. Jamaican Creole descends from a reduced variety of English, but it is not itself reduced in any way, any more than English is a reduced variety of German; it has the full capability of human expression that any language has. (It may need to borrow vocabulary for certain domains of discourse, but so has English and every other language.) And languages do not change as a result of the conscious efforts of their speakers: that's been known since the 19th century and earlier.

    ReplyDelete