It would be pretty cool to name a heavenly body. Linguist Jo-Anne Ferreira can now add that distinction to her list of qualifications, as she won the Trinidad and Tobago segment of a world competition organized by the International Astronomical Union (UAI), the authority in charge of naming astronomical elements such as stars and planets.
To commemorate the UAI's 100th anniversary, the global campaign aimed to find some names – connected by a common theme – for an ex-world (combination of a star and an exoplanet), which would become its official name (apart from its designation scientific) and would allow other planets, should more be discovered in the future, to be named after the same theme.
Ferreira's winning names for the new star and its correlative exoplanet are Dingolay and Ramajay. Dingolay means “turn and turn,” and Ramajay means “sing.” Together, they represent the love of Trinbagonians for their culture and the respect for the languages of their ancestors.
After a national call for name suggestions, ten finalists were chosen for the NameExoWorlds contest. The general public was encouraged to vote for the names of Trinidad and Tobago's official exoplanet and its host star.
Shirin Haque, a tenured professor of astronomy at the St. Augustine campus of the University of the West Indies and UAI national outreach coordinator, called the contest a “first in astronomy history for Trinidad and Tobago to have the opportunity to immortalize yourself among the stars. “
Ferreira's victory was announced by the UIA in December 2019, and since then she has been quite busy, with her new ex-world, plus her usual workload as a professor of linguistics at the University of the West Indies.
When we finally had a chance to chat – opportunely after the Trinidad and Tobago Carnival, since the nicknames he proposed have cultural significance – it became clear that his extensive knowledge of the language played a key role in his selection of names.
In this first part of a two-part interview, Ferreira tells how language connects us all.
Janine Mendes-Franco (JMF 🙂 Congratulations again on this amazing achievement! Is it different now that the fanfare has calmed down a bit? Has the magnitude of having been responsible for naming something in the universe appropriately been assimilated?
Jo-Anne Ferreira (JAF 🙂 Thank you, and me if (Creole for “thanks”) to Dr. Shirin Haque and her team, and to all those who shared my taste (in names) and voted for me. Congrats to my fellow finalists as well. It's still amazing to me that we were even given a chance to be part of this historical naming campaign in the first place.
We (Trinidad and Tobago) were the only ones in the English-official Caribbean to participate. The only other Caribbean territories were Aruba, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Puerto Rico. As far as I know, our names are also the only Patois or French Creole names (not to be confused with Jamaican Creole, also called Patois), and the only Caribbean Creole names at all. And if more celestial objects are found, we can continue to add more Trinbagonian names to the heavenlies.
The best part for me is this scripture verse: “He determines the number of the stars and calls them each by name” – so I'm still star struck.
Jo-Anne Ferreira (JAF): Thank you, and mèsi (Creole for “thank you”) to Dr. Shirin Haque and her team, and to all who shared my taste (in names) and voted for me. Congratulations to my fellow finalists too. It still amazes me that we have been given the opportunity to be a part of this historic naming campaign to get started.
(Trinidad and Tobago) We were the only ones in the official English Caribbean who participated. The only other Caribbean territories were Aruba, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Puerto Rico. As far as I know, our names are also the only French creole or patois names (not to be confused with the Jamaican creole, also called patois), and the only Caribbean creole names in general. And if more celestial objects are found, we can keep adding more trinbagonese names to the celestial ones.
The best part for me is this scripture verse: “Determine the number of the stars and call each one by name” … so the star still amazes me.
JMF: What inspired you to enter the contest? Are you fond of astronomy?
JAF: I'm interested in our languages, words, naming / names, etymology, and language history. I am not an astronomy buff, though, of course, I stand in awe of the universe.
JAF: I am interested in our languages, words, names, etymology and history of language. I am not fond of astronomy, although of course the universe amazes me.
JMF: Explain the reason behind your choice of names, the connectivity between the two words, and their meaning and resonance for Trinidadians – linguistic, cultural, and others.
JAF: We are a linguistically and culturally creative and complex people. The names I chose speak to our passion, our joie de vivre and our creativity. They roughly mean “to dance” – dingolay – which we do very well, with so many genres and of so many origins, with dancers having gone to China, to the United States and Canada, and “to sing” – ramajay – which we also do very well, with prize-winning singers from here to Germany to the United States and around the world.
Dingolay is a fascinating word and may have two origins, a possible convergence of Koongo and French, and has found its way into tassa drumming. It’s the name of a tassa hand drawn directly from dholak rhythms. I would call that a true Trinbagonian word.
Ramajay is a particularly beautiful, poetic verb describing the chirping or warbling of a bird. It’s a French word, ramager (same pronunciation except for the ‘r’, as in “ramaˌʒe”, now rare and archaic. We’ve preserved it and catapulted it to the stars.
A Martiniquan colleague wrote about the words, which was very gratifying to me.
JAF: We are a linguistically and culturally creative and complex people. The names I chose speak of our passion, our joy in living and our creativity. They mean more or less “dancing” –dingolay– that we are doing very well, with so many genres and from so many origins, with dancers who have gone to China, the United States and Canada, and “singing” –ramajay– that is also going very well for us , with award-winning singers from here to Germany to the United States and around the world.
Dingolay is a fascinating word and can have two origins, a possible convergence of koongo and French, and has found its way into the tassa drum. It is the name of a tassa hand drawn directly from dholak rhythms. I would call that a true trinbagonic word.
Ramajay is a particularly beautiful and poetic verb that describes the chirp or twitter of a bird. It is a French word, ramager (the same pronunciation except for the 'r', as in 'ramaˌʒe', already rare and archaic. We have preserved it and catapulted it to the stars.
A colleague from Martinique wrote about the words, which was gratifying for me.
JMF: Although not everyone was happy with the winning names. You received some online criticism of the names, including comments suggesting that they were complacent to “carnival culture”, were ethnically exclusive, or were “sexually explicit.” How do you respond to detractors?
JAF: If we knew our history, then we would know where we came from and would have fewer identity issues. Our 10 Amerindian nations were not ignored, as some naysayers felt. Our First Peoples are known to speak Patois, our first island-wide lingua franca. We can learn from the lessons of losing our Amerindian languages, and try to save just one more national heritage language.
A bird’s warbling does not originate in Carnival, and Carnival has all types of dance movements, including dingolaying.
Because Carnival is a festival, dancing and singing must be involved. Any word can undergo semantic change, such as generalization or specialization –including amelioration and pejoration – metaphor, and much more. Words can have seasons in their life span, and if users find that a particular word can adapt well to another context, then so be it.
SW, chacun à son goût (“To each his own”), basically. I myself am not a lover of Carnival per se, but in any case, no one can deny the beauty and the creative and mesmerizing genius of our people, which are second to none.
JAF: If we knew our history, then we would know where we came from and we would have fewer identity problems. Our ten Amerindian nations were not ignored, as some opponents thought. Our first towns are known to speak patois, our first lingua franca throughout the island. We can learn from the lessons of the loss of our Amerindian languages, and try to save one more language from the national heritage.
The chirping of a bird does not originate from the carnival, and the carnival has all kinds of dance moves, including the dingolay.
Since carnival is a festival, dancing and singing must be involved. Any word can undergo a semantic change, such as generalization or specialization -including improvement and degradation-, metaphor and much more. Words can have seasons in your life, and if users find that a particular word can adapt well to another context, so be it.
So, chacun à son goût (“to each his own”), basically. I am not a carnival lover in itself, but in any case, no one can deny the beauty and the creative and hypnotic genius of our people, which are unsurpassed.
He searches for the second part of this series, in which Ferreira delves deep into the roots and the ever-changing fluidity of language, tells some exciting projects, and explores how linguistics and astronomy are linked.