Jamaican Creole Salutes an Epic: Beowulf

Hwæt, We Gar-dena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon!
oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum,
monegum mægþum meodosetla ofteah,
egsode eorlas, syððanærest wearð
feasceaft funden; he þæs frofre gebad,
weox under wolcnum weorðmyndum þah,
oð þæt him æghwylc ymbsittendra
ofer hronrade hyran scolde,
gomban gyldan; þæt wæs god cyning!

Wait! Before you begin to think the preceding paragraph is the result of an editor high on an unknown substance, read on and think again. Hwæt (listen up; Yo!): believe it or not, this is none other than what is termed Old English, the Anglo-Saxon tongue spoken in parts of England, Scotland and Wales circa AD 1000, and spawned from a family of Germanic languages, Old Norse and Old Frisian. The paragraph is an excerpt from the prologue of Beowulf, the first known English literary masterpiece. Author unknown, it was written in the vernacular centuries before the standardization of English, just before Latin and Greek crept into the language through liturgical literature, before the imperial Roman armies stomped on it, and Norman gentility flowered it.

In essence, the above is a language foreign to modern-day English speakers, and clearly, there is no understanding of the text without the translation into Modern English. Chances are many still won’t grasp the passage’s meaning unless it is further translated into “urban” talk. The dynamism of the English language, like most others where there is no manipulation by “language police”, will not permit it to stand still, and even though many of its rules have prevailed for hundreds of years with modifications in each community (e.g. British vs. American usage), the great leveler that is the Internet will soon break the back of time-honored grammatical rules, and much of what we think is cast in stone will be pulverized.

Contractions, such as it’s will soon be accepted as the possessive, just as different than has become staple American usage. Using the Standard British English term inflammable is like playing with matches when used instead of flammable, its American counterpart, especially in sensitive military areas where combined troops of both nationalities are positioned, so small, imperceptible changes have been taking place. And it will soon become standard to pluralize words with an apostrophe preceding the ‘s’.

Even though it is has been accepted as the global mode of communication, English, the überlanguage, may well be still in transition, just as is the non-Standard Jamaican Creole, an infant language parented by English, West African languages and other additional influences, a language recently so much in contention, held in contempt and dubbed a non-language by many of its own speakers, some of whom are incapable of maintaining a conversation in Standard Jamaican English. Who knows? Perhaps if the unknown author who penned the Beowulf epic thought as little of his own language as many Jamaican Creole speakers do, English literature would have waited for the language to be standardized, the great authors we read of today might have become masons, vintners, joggleurs and jesters and just left writing to the monks, and much of our knowledge of medieval history would have been gleaned through oral tradition and wall etchings. Surely I jest. But all this hullabaloo about why the Bible shouldn’t be translated into Jamaican Creole, and from some well-lettered folks too, seems so inane when one looks at the history of the English language.

Just for a lark, I’d like to try my hand at translating the classic passage above into fi wi langwij. First, here is a translation maintaining the epic tradition, into what is termed modern English:

Listen! We –of the Spear-Danes in the days of yore,

of those clan-kings, heard of their glory;

how those nobles performed courageous deeds.

Often Scyld, Scef’s son, from enemy hosts

from many peoples seized mead-benches

and terrorised the fearsome Heruli after first he was

found helpless and destitute, he then knew recompense for that

he waxed under the clouds, throve in honours,

until to him each of the bordering tribes

beyond the whale-road had to submit,

and yield tribute: that was a good king!

And finally, without the ornate diction and oblique narrative, ah we dis:

Oonu listen mi: We fram de Spear-Danes posse did a hear bout dem don man long long time now, an how dem dus’ out nuff man. Even Scyld bwoy-pickney, im use to tief furnitcha fram the next posse dem and lik shat onda dem bwoy from di Heruli gang – eeven doh one time im did fenke-fenke and bruk-packet, but him well smart, far im stay pon crooked an cut straight, till de Wale Road posse an di adda posse dem haffi bow an show him nuff respeck! Coodden joke wid da don deh!

Perhaps you could render it into patwa epic verse for me.

Teachers of English in Jamaica may have a captive audience in the classroom, if they use a little innovation, respect the vernacular, and allow their charges to have some fun while learning the language, with all the challenges that face our children.


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