I braved the persistent rain in Atlanta last Friday and successfully picked up Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus from the local library. I’ve completed step one on my newly formed mission to get bookish! I’m about halfway through the novel and I like it so far. Adichie writes in vivid yet spare language that I hope to see more of in the coming weeks.
Adichie often uses bits and phrases of the Igbo language, as the novel takes place in her native Nigeria. Adichie herself is Igbo. I love learning about different languages, so I found myself on YouTube listening to Igbo pronoun lessons. (Yes, more nerd activities!) In the middle of sounding out the second person plural pronoun, I had an epiphany.
[WARNING: Mini tangent ahead! But stick with me…it’ll make sense soon.]
I grew up in Central Florida, where Caribbean people abound, some of whom are my best friends. It’s not uncommon for me to pepper my speech with Haitian Creole or Jamaican Patois because the languages have so seasoned my life. One Jamaican Patois word that always eluded my comprehension is “unu.” As an English major, I struggled to find a corresponding standard English derivative for it…until now.
I learned today that in Igbo language, “unu” is the second person plural pronoun, translated in English roughly as “you all.” During the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, many Igbo people were brought to Jamaica as slaves. They contributed greatly to Jamaican culture, including, apparently, vestiges of their language that persist in modern times.
Unu is such a small word, but to me, it greatly underscored how small this world can be. How, through the pages of history, heritage preserves itself in innocuous time capsules like words. Nigeria lives in Jamaica. As an African-American, I take great pleasure in discovering that other members of the African Diaspora can find clues to their origins codified in their language.
Jamaican Patois has been considered inferior to English, which is another dissertation entirely. But what creativity and ingenuity it must have taken to birth a living thing from the cold irons of slavery and give it heart! Creole language is and was the first frontier of revolt against oppression, a beautiful, lasting testament to the resilience of subjugated peoples. English is my first language, but today, for me, unu is the most important word I’ve ever heard.