Do You Know Frederic Cassidy?

It’s my usual practice to listen to my local NPR station while I’m at work.  I get the opportunity to keep up-to-date on national and local news.  One of the shows I listen to quite often is The Diane Rehm Show and his past Wednesday I looked forward to the programme about the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE). I like languages.  I like to learn how they are used and why people choose the words they do.  The right word can colour a sentence, provoke emotion, earn you a friend, or convey an idea even better than a picture.  The title of the show was especially attractive to me because it made me think of patois/patwa – Jamaican English if you will.  I love patois…even though I think that Jamaicans, for efficiency’s sake, need to have a strong command of (traditional) English.  For me, some things can only be properly expressed in patois.  It has its place in Jamaican culture, history, and society.  It’s the vehicle that we use to express our true selves, to bare our souls.  I think that it can and should be used to improve instruction in Jamaican schools.   So I tuned in to hear about how this project had catalogued the differences in language across America; it might help me to sort through these ideas and issues about patois.  About 15 minutes into the show Diane asked about DARE’s founder, Frederic Cassidy…who was born in Jamaica.  Listen, few things make my ears perk up like “Jamaica” so when she said that I began paying closer attention.

Frederic G. Cassidy, 1907 - 2000

Turns out that Mr. Cassidy emigrated with his family to Ohio from Jamaica when he was 12.  The New York Times obituary written for him in 2000 remembers him as

a lexicographer who followed his love of folk language into the nooks and crannies of Jamaica’s creole and across the linguistic expanses of the United States

The legacy of his work with DARE was evident even in this 1-hour edition of the DR Show.  Folks called in to share phrases and words used by their grandparents or in their hometowns and it turns out that many of their offerings are captured in the many volumes of the dictionary.  Who knew there were so many words for “sandwich” and “roll.”  Listening to this show + reading Mr. Cassidy’s obituary and the tribute to him on the DARE site made my heart smile.  Nothing could touch me for the rest of the day because I was cloaked in pride and joy and my brain was humming.  Mr. Cassidy used his curiosity about and fascination with language to his advantage.  And, he didn’t forget his family influence (he fondly cited his dad’s love of odd words as influencing his work) and Jamaican roots, he built on them

His first [venture into exploring language] was in the 1950’s and 60’s, when he traveled through his native Jamaica to research a single-volume dictionary of Jamaican English and Creole. He found people at work, cutting cane or making dugout canoes and recorded the words they used in their answers.

His body of work includes Jamaica Talk: Three Hundred Years of the English Language in Jamaica (1961) and the Dictionary of Jamaican English (1967).

I cherish learning about Mr. Cassidy because, for me, he’s an example of someone who emigrated from Jamaica and who excelled doing something that folks probably looked at him funny for.  But he did what he loved, he followed his passion and he did it well.  Yeah, I cherish it…a lot.

4 Responses to “Do You Know Frederic Cassidy?”
  1. Cee Jay says:

    Thanks for telling me about Mr Cassidy and his contribution to the documentation of the history of our language.

    I agree, his works can be used in our classroom to help students at all levels to understand and improve their use of ‘standard English’.

    A classic case – while at teacher’s college we were assigned a class of students (primary school common entrance age; who were not sitting the exam because they would not, in the school’s estimation, pass the exam). Oh, the school was in a low income urban community.

    We had to prepare a lesson plan for the English class and present it to the students. Nuff thinking, how to approach this, etc. Well, it was Miss Lou to the rescue. We used one of her poems. We read it for the students. Lots of laughter and then we asked them to work in groups of 2, with their Gestetner copies of the poem, and to write a letter to a pen pal outside of Jamaica and tell them what the poem said. Enthusiasm, questions – ‘Miss how yu spell dis word’? Opportunity to make the link to the thing called a dictionary. Their class teacher was amazed – she had never seen them so animated and focused. Group work to boot and no fighting!

    What that experience made me realise was we have been short changing our children. Sadly, we continue to do so. Until we acknowledge this and come up with creative ways to deal with it, we will continue to experience low levels of numeracy and literacy.

    By the way, we don’t have to have massive investments in IT, etc. There are low-tech ways to reach our children. Ted Dwyer, Patricia Issacs; and all the lecturers in Exed’s Teacher Training Department – thank you for showing me that you can accomplish a lot with very little resources.

  2. Nice piece. I knew of Cassidy’s work on Jamaican Creole but didn’t know that he had worked so extensively in Jamaican dialects.

    I wonder if we’ll ever get past the insecurity that makes us devalue our own language. It leads to so much unrealized potential.

  3. petchary says:

    This is wonderful! In fact, I just recommended his book “Jamaica Talk” (which I have right here on my bookshelf in Kingston, along with the dictionary) to an incoming senior official at the U.S. Embassy. It is a classic. Someone like Mr. Cassidy is a rarity, in many ways. Not only did he pursue what he loved – he also produced two publications that are of incredible value and contribute a great deal not only to learning in general, but also for those who are trying to understand more about how we communicate. They are practical guides.

    I know what you mean about languages…It has been an endlessly fascinating topic for me since I discovered at school that I had a “flair” for them. I ended up studying French, German, Latin, Japanese and Chinese. Oh, and I suppose after 25 years here I do pretty much understand Jamaican patois, though I certainly don’t converse in it!

    Thanks for your always interesting blog posts. Keep it up!

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