Language and laughter

Collision is of course one metaphor, but that is where it starts.


Jamaican architecture is about the relationship between architecture and language. Everywhere there is language on the architecture.


This language has gone through the same social whirlpool as the architecture, and therefore we can hear a number of echoes.


The slaves who arrived, knew nothing of the language of their prospective masters. The masters, and especially their accomplices communicated not with words but with rude gestures and violence. Their own language was subsumed into the phrases and intonations of English and the fragments of their own and other dialects.


English is transformation. Language transforms. It is process of transformation. The Saussurian dualism of langue and parole, is of course inadequate as langue assumes a tradition a habit.


This habit is certainly there, but it has become its own habit. Removed from English.


English has been preserved and worked upon within Jamaica on several social levels.


Like the motion of the waves of the Caribbean sea, the elements, patois, English, Jamaican English, the various accents, are constantly folded over one another.


It creates a rhythmic motion of transformation.


Jamaican architecture undergoes a similar process. It is an architecture of transformations, constantly folding within itself the icons of desire: the other and, to a far lesser extent, the nostalgic.


The collision is a metaphor that might do for the first initial shock of arrival, time and time again. But then, after that collision we have to see the way the waves hit the sand, and fold over one another, the receding water of the previous wave increasing the violence of the next.


James W Lee in 1986 produced a hilarious little pamphlet about signs in Jamaica. He had photographed them from 1951 to 1986, and they are gems. I quote from the blurb on the back:


“One of the most unique features of Jamaica is the humour hidden in roadside signs by local artists. (…) They include delightful misspellings, curious combinations of products or services and double or even triple meanings. The result is a peppering of unintentionally hilarious messages…”


“Jamacan signs can be as eloquent as Jamaican speech and equally full of humour, though often unintentionally.”


The introduction and the back page blurb go some way to deal with the sensitivity of the subject.


After all the photographs are of signs where the humour comes from the misspelling of words and the cultural shock of seeing “strange” things juxtaposed.”


Figure 1 Page from Lee's book


In fact the author, a white Canadian, came to Jamaica in 1951 and “aimed his camera at everything different from back home.”


It is the confrontation with the other. The cultural shock.


It is with this sentitivty and this cultural shock that I want to deal philsophically. Glissant and others speak beautifully of the strange confrontation of Black with West and White. But I want to defend my laughter about these signs.


I acknowledge the need to defend my laughter. It is my own need. Not yours. And has very little to do with you. Nevertheless I want to see where it lies. Where lies this humour?


The unkindest interpretation is that I laugh at the signs and the sign painters and ridicule them for their otherness and their bad English. That is a very poor humour.


It is a humour where the goalposts have been clearly defined and assumptions have been made. The rational might go something like this: “English is what they should be speaking properly and their specialisation of labour is primitive, they profess to be professionals in everything. Hah ha ha.”


That such a humour is an indication of poverty in the mind of people who feel like that is nebulous, for people who laugh this way have not added a dimension to their perpspective and cannot therefore peceive their lack.


There is another way which this humour can be enjoyed. It rests upon another understanding of the process of transformation. That process of constant collision, draging, folding and turbulence.


It shows us, simplistically to be sure, a culture which is labouring under the Sysiphian curse of having to push and roll the stone up the hill for the absurd reward of seeing it roll down again.


The linguistic world of the Caribbean is one of flux. Think of it this way. Due to the collision between Africa and Europe here within the Caribbean, many languages have collided with English: the unmoveable, and as a result bits have stuck to the one and the other. A rich product has come out of this, which is essentially English modified. The divergence between the English from England, and Caribbean versions has undergone the process of folding, and toing and froing, dragging and sedimenting, evaporating and precipitating, gurgling and eddying. And the humour in the signs comes from the possibilities which this creates in the mind of the other.


It is the strangeness of the juxtapositions which is funny, funny in the philsophically profound humour of the chinese encyclopedia, (Foucault’s introduction to Les Mots et les choses) the confrontation of contingencies. This is a deep humour, humour which laughs with confidence at the return. It laughs not at the vanity of the categories of our mind, but at their provisional nature, These juxtapositions are the evidence of our need to constantly re-visit our assumptions.


Similarly the laughter at the misspellings is not a ridicule, far from it, it is the laughter of seeing well turned earth, ploughed land, and the wealth in ambivalence and ambiguity. Their spelling is not at issue. Their spelling is simply their spelling, the process of appropriating a language and unleashing on it the natural process of transformation. Making a language your own involves transforming that language. That is why there are now so many different forms of English. Who is to say that one is less legitimate than the other and what fool wants to question legitimacy anyway, it is a Victorian category of the type we rebbelled against once.


Therefore their misspelling is merely the process whereby language is ploughed and new connections are made possible.


I laughed myself silly.


Kingston is reputedly an ugly city. I would argue that case. It is considered ugly because it does not conform to current ideas about what a beautiful city is. It has few if any monumental buildings. It is an ugly city.


But what an impoverishment of my own being! An ugly city, my foot. Kingston is one of the richest cities I have known. It is precisely its ugliness that allows me to lift the veil of the next scale at which one can observe. To change the way I look, the way I watch and the way I see.


Change the scale at which I look change the direction of my watchful focus,  increase the resolution of my view, and hopefully “see” yet more.


The architecture of Kingston is about transformation, about the coming together of habits and the difficulty of communication between the linguistically and geographically defined social layers of Jamaican society. Where you live and how you talk..


Language and architecture. Architecture as a language, architecture with language, the architecture of society in language and architecture. The possibilities are endless.


This same process of collision, folding dragging and toing and froing etc. is what takes us to the subject of litter.


Again we can look at litter as a crime and a nuissance and use it to confirm our suspicians about a society which allows etc. But that merely confirms our otherness again. Not that that is a bad thing, But remember, civilisation is measured by the distance between the man and his rubbish. Therefore the more civilised societies are not better, but their bad side is less visible but frequently much larger. It is the rubbish that the West is producing that is causing concern.