Have you ever heard about the Jamaica alphabet rhyme, also called the Negro alphabet in long time colonial days?
This seems to have been a popular rhyme for entertainment during bruckins parties or as a stand-alone ring-game played by children. Martha Warren Beckwith (1871-1959), an American folklorist and ethnographer who studied different aspects of Jamaican folklore in the early 20th century, decribed how the ring game was played as follows (Beckwith 1928, p. 83):
Any number of players sit in a circle. As a letter falls to each player in the order of its succession in the alphabet, he must match the letter with an object with the same initial be reciting a verse from some familiar alphabet or inventing one impromptu in the same form. A forfeit is demandeed as the penalty for failure.
There are several versions of the Jamaica alphabet rhyme and it seems to vary according to the location of its origin. Beckwith (1928) herself recorded four versions: three from those she interviewed (Copeland’s Alphabet, Canow School Alphabet and Mandeville version) and one sourced from the Gleaner titled the Jamaica Kitchen Alphabet, which she referenced as the Kingston version.
A popular publisher during the late 19th century, Aston W. Gardner, published the earliest written version of the rhyme in 1896 as the John Canoe Alphabet. He then published The Negro Alphabet in 1897, an illustrated version of the former publication. He also came out with a series of postcards showcasing the illustrated rhymes. The University of the West Indies (UWI) Mona Library’s Digital Collection showcases these postcards.
The following version of the alphabet is found in Jamaican Negro Proverbs and Sayings (1972):
A is for assinoo, see how him ‘tan;
B is for bockra, a berry bad man;
C is for puss, him name call Maria;
D is for duppy, him yeye shine like fire;
E is for eel, him ketch a de ferry;
F is for fiddle, him play berry merry;
G is for gub’ner, him lib a king’s house;
H is for Dry Harbour, place poor as church mouse;
I is a gentleman, him bery well bred;
J is for John Crow, him hab a peel head;
K is for callalu, berry nice when him bwoil;
L is for lizard, him tail quite ‘pwoil;
M is for monkey, look pon him face;
N is for Nana, him cap trim wid lace;
O is for oliphant, him hab a long snout;
P is for patoo, a night him come out;
Q is for quattie, beg missus one please;
R is for ratta, him nyam too much cheese;
S is for snake, him lib in a grass;
T is for tick, him tick berry fast;
U is for Uncle, please tell hum how’dye;
V is for vervain make berry good tea;
W X Y me sure me feget;
Z is for Zebedee mendin’ him net.
Until next time…
Anderson, I. and Cundall, F. (1972) Negro Proverbs and Sayings Collected and Classified According to Subjects. Kingston: Institute of Jamaica.
Beckwith, M.W. (1928) Jamaica Folk-lore. New York: American Folk-lore Society.
Robertson, G. (1985). Some Early Jamaican Postcards, their Photographers and Publishers. Jamaica Journal, Vol. 18(1), p. 13-22.
Senior, O. (2003) Encyclopedia of Jamaican Heritage. St. Andrew: Twin Guinep Publishers Ltd.