Oh Bumboklaat


Peter Tosh’s Oh Bomboclaat is an anthem for injustice, using the word as a weapon to ward off frustration

I’ve long had a fondness for the word Bomboclaat. It’s one of my all time favourite words for a number of reasons. It’s rhythm and it can equally express awe or frustration. And now, in the wake of the tragedy of Kayann Lamont who was shot in an altercation which resulted from her use of the word, it seems more appropriate than ever, capturing many Jamaicans’ frustration with a police force that is far too often given to excessive brutality.

Like its sisters-in-claat, Bomboclaat is used to express joy, triumph, frustration and defiance. Lamont’s brutal murder seems to have nothing to do with that other language battle currently raging in Jamaica, the question of whether Jamaican Creole should be taught in schools, but it does. Both situations are about language power, politics, class and ideas of decency. Lamont’s shooting is the worst possible outcome of our contemptuous and contentious relationship with Jamaican Creole.

Though it hasn’t been said out loud, one of the biggest issues in the debate about teaching Jamaican in schools is legitimacy. Jamaican is a bastard born from two mothers, England and Africa and there is no father in sight. English is a legitimate language having been written in books, in far too many cases, in blood. King James’ decision to ensure that Jesus and Shakespeare speak the same language was not to be taken lightly. English was a major tool of colonization and its superiority was literally beaten into us, to the point where we know, without a doubt that in the beginning was the word, and that word was written in English.

Every time someone dismisses Jamaican by arguing the words are not real words (because apparently real words are only those found in dictionaries – and neither the Dictionary of Jamaican English nor the Dictionary of Caribbean English count) but are instead just words borrowed from English they question the legitimacy of the language. What they are saying is that Jamaican is just a likkle dutty bastard and has no place in the hallowed halls of the school. Of course the main evidence of its bastardy is that many of the words in Jamaican are of English origin, as the major differences between the two languages is in the grammar. So some argue that Jamaican cannot be considered a real language because so much of its vocabulary is borrowed. However, as the Miss Lou pointed out, if all the other languages were to take back their words from English, it would be left with very little.

The “borrowed language” argument misses that, as in the case of English, many of the words no longer have the same meaning as in their language of origin. Sometimes the differences evolved from pronunciation but often they have evolved from use and now reflect a Jamaican world view. So “ignorant” as used in Jamaican Creole doesn’t mean an absence of knowledge. It means being driven to such a state of anger that one loses all touch with rational behaviour. Similarly, “craven” comes from “crave” and therefore has nothing to do with cowardice. Additionally, it doesn’t mean to want, it means to be greedy. There are numerous words like this and this is a part of the reason it’s important to take Creole into the classroom. Watch an episode of Ity and Fancy Cat for that segment where they ask someone to translate a song lyric from Jamaican to English and see how many people get it wrong.They do because with the similarity in vocab, and because the two languages have never been formally differentiated for most of us, we do not realize that we are speaking two different languages.

The absence of spelling conventions is also used as evidence that Jamaican isn’t a legitimate language. Many view the Cassidy system as incomprehensible, despite its being far simpler than English. A part of the argument is that the Cassidy system looks “mek up” which is true, but then every language system is made up. However we don’t feel that way about English, or French or Spanish etc, because were simply passed on to us, so it seems they came wholly in tact. We don’t think about the fact that English has so many exceptions because of its “mek-upness” which is why “taught” is past for teach but “praught” is not the past tense of “preach” or and why “awesome” and “awful” are opposites.  Furthermore, all languages, unless it’s dead, evolve as speakers make up new words or change the meaning of old words to reflect their current existence. A few years ago, only birds could twitter and no one had a “tweep”, and we all had to say “ridic” would be ridiculous. (Note tweep and ridic are among the Oxford Dictionaries New Words 2012 list)

None of those who propose the inclusion of Jamaican in school curricula argue that it would be in lieu of English. Instead, they argue that not only will it improve English learning skills as well as comprehension in general. The argument is that by formally teaching Jamaican in schools you would strengthen the higher cognitive skills by strengthening your native tongue. This means therefore that it would also improve our ability to learn other languages. While many argue that speaking English gives us access to the world, this isn’t completely true. While England, having sucked the blood, sweat and wealth from the numerous countries it colonized can afford a “one head, one language” attitude, we cannot. There are only approximately 8 million people in the English-speaking Caribbean and our constantly being grouped as Latin-America and the Caribbean affects more than access to HBO or TNT. It affects how we do business; it affects our eligibility to work with multi-national corporations. We need to be multi-lingual.

So if teaching Jamaican can improve our access to English and other languages rather than hinder it, why are we so opposed to it?

The late Morris Cargill likened Jamaican Creole to Yahoolish and argued that it was no more coherent than a barking dog. While many of those who remain opposed to Jamaican being taught in schools are not that extreme, one cannot separate the issue from class in Jamaica. Worse yet, not only is speaking Jamaican a marker of being poor, but it is also used to indicate that you are semi-educated, or worse yet, an idiot. This outlook is why people express surprise when they realize that “an intelligent DJ” is not an oxymoron. And despite this, people like Bounti Killer are maligned as stupid, despite his eloquence in Creole, because English keeps kicking his ass. So, for many people speaking Creole is a marker of being poor, black and stupid and in Jamaica, that may as well be a criminal offense.

We all know that there is a language learning problem in Jamaica, but rather than admit that we need to try something new, something tested, something proven because the system is broken, we choose to argue that the students and teachers are broken. This leaves no room for acceptance that Jamaican is a rich, vibrant language capable of varied and nuanced expression. It blindly refuses to accept that a language so vilified, and denigrated can have anything to offer outside of leisure (or for cussing).

And in the face of such wanton ignorance (and here I invoke both English and Creole meanings), I am left with only the weapon of words, and I simply throw up my hands in frustration and yell, Oh bomboclaat!

And oh yeah, Happy Birthday Miss Lou!

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