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The Diaspora

Why is Jamaican patois not an official language? The answer is not as easy as you think 

Why is Jamaican patois not an official language? The answer is not as easy as you think
TRELAWNY, JAMAICA - MARCH 11: Fans show off the Jamaican flag during the ICC Cricket World Cup 2007 opening ceremony at the Trelawny Multi Purpose Stadium on March 11, 2007 in Trelawny, Jamaica. (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)

There has been for some time, a consensus among marketing professionals who believe countries need to be treated like products looking to be bought. If that’s an understanding we can have, then Jamaica’s brand is pretty solid.

Yet, Jamaica seems like a country many are familiar with but may not necessarily know or understand. And more often than not, we are guilty of accepting conspicuousness for depth.

The creole of patois is an easy example in this vein. Patois in itself has become a synecdoche for the entirety of Jamaica but the intricacies of the language and culture are skipped.

To start off, the term patois is not even a preserve of Jamaican culture. It is borrowed from Old French reference for a local or regional version of some language.

It is worthy of note that patois is related to the root verb patoier, which approximates to “to treat informally/lightly/roughly”. We get a sense, therefore, of what a patois socially translates into.

Structurally, the language of Jamaican patois is not unlike the pidgins you find in West Africa. Indeed, some linguists say pidgins are in the patois family.

The relationship here is that in both pidgins and patois, a more unsophisticated version of a base language, English, is mixed with the strong influences of other tongues.

But the difference between a patois and a pidgin is that a patois becomes a creole while a pidgin usually endures the low prestige within the societies that it is spoken.

Jamaican patois is a creation of about 400 years of piecing together grammatically-inferior English with words from slaves who had been shipped to the New World from West and Central Africa.

While author F.G. Cassidy believes that a bit of the African words are from the Akan languages in modern-day Ghana, it is also known Igbo slaves from Nigeria also chipped in some words.

And so did the Bambara slaves of Mali.

These slaves nativized the English dialect they went to meet on the island, chopped and changed the parts they could, and in doing so, realized the creole that has been popularised across the world, thanks to reggae music.

Today, of Jamaica’s three or so million inhabitants, you will struggle to find anyone incapable of speaking some patois. But it would be wrong to think the universality of a lingua franca spurs some egalitarian sense of social identity.

After almost six decades of independence from British rule, and the thousands of hit reggae songs that could play continuously till the end of the next decade, Jamaica is wrestling with what to do with their patois.

The country even wrestles with how to perceive patois speakers. Speaking the creole has been called the “bastardization of the English language”.

Writing on “The Historical and Cultural Aspects of Jamaican Patois”, Ruby Madden noted that for many Jamaicans, the ability to communicate effectively in the creole is ironically a mark of the uneducated.

Since Standard English is the country’s official language, institutions are tailored towards perpetuating the respectability of the tradition. What comes with this is people with better economic conditions are more receptive to the tradition.

The call to have Jamaican patois legitimised by the state has therefore been met with stiff opposition by the establishment for decades.

Twenty years ago, a group of students from the University of West Indies Mona campus proposed that authorities of the university need to offer lessons in the local creole.

The students believed that such a move would boost the self-esteem of students as well as simplify the transfer of knowledge with measurably positive communication skills.

But the university pushed back, identifying that the struggle Jamaica’s students have with grasping the Standard English language is simply because of the prevalence of patois.

Another argument was the skepticism of how studying, for instance, physics in Jamaican patois, would translate into application in the real world. How would one even conceptualise the complex physio-chemical reactions in Jamaican patois?

A similar kind of resistance was raised against the translation of the Christian Bible into patois in 2011 and 2012. The edition, known as Jiizas Buk, was described by some Christians as ridiculous and even sacrilegious.

It has been close to a decade and a majority of the island’s Christians still do not find something like “Jiizas – di buk we Luuk rait bout im” (The Gospel of Jesus Christ according to Luke) spiritually transformative.

The political establishment also argues its opposition to the legitimization of patois based on similar sentiments as raised by the University of West Indies.

If patois is backed by law to the detriment of Standard English, how will Jamaicans interact in the sphere of international relations? Jamaican patois is after all, just Jamaican.

Jamaican patois is also not as written as it is a spoken language, with the deficit clearly showing in the lack of rules of literary engagements in the creole.

This is even so despite the successes of authors and poets such as Linton Kwesi Johnson, Mutabaruka and Paul Keens-Douglas.

The government of Prime Minister Andrew Holness has even indicated that it is more useful to look at Spanish as the island’s other official languages rather than patois.

He said last year that his country has “enjoyed a successful, meaningful and mutually beneficial relationship [with Spain] for many years, dating back centuries.”

Holness’ reasons are clearly internationalist and economic. He outlined “Spanish investment of US$1.7 billion in Jamaica’s tourism industry… I think very soon we will have to emphasize and put in place programmes that make Spanish a second language.”

But even if one thinks Holness has his argument wrong, an oft-avoided cultural problem Jamaican patois might face in this present times of political correctness is if the creole culture can warm up to issues such as homosexuality.

Patois, being the language of artistic expression on the island, comes under the influence of dancehall and reggae stars, many of whom do not hide their homophobia.

Homosexual sex and relationships in Jamaica are also illegal.

Face2Face Africa

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