That will be the day. This is Jamaica, after all, one of the most backward places on Earth when it comes to acknowledging the value of the Creole languages created by African people who were colonised by Europeans. Forced to learn the languages of our supposed masters, we adapted English, French, Dutch, Portuguese, etc. to suit the structures of our own mother tongues.
The governor general of St Lucia, Dame Pearlette Louisy, gives part of her throne speech in Patois each year. The GG is a linguist, so she fully understands the psychological power of the mother tongue. In her talk at The International Conference on Language Rights and Policy in the Creole-speaking Caribbean, hosted last January by the University of the West Indies, Mona, Dame Pearlette conveyed the excitement her throne speech always generates. St Lucians look forward to hearing the traditional language that reminds them of the distinctiveness of their history and culture.
Because the vocabulary of St Lucian Patois comes mostly from French, the language sounds quite different from English, the official language of the island. By contrast, the vocabulary of Jamaican Creole is largely of English origin. So that’s where a lot of the confusion starts. It’s popularly assumed that Jamaican Creole is nothing but ‘corrupt’ or ‘broken’ English.
But there’s far more to Creole languages than the European words. African linguistic features are evident in the grammar, syntax and pronunciation patterns of the new languages which have emerged far and wide: in the Caribbean; North, South and Central America; Mauritius; the Seychelles Islands; on the continent of Africa – wherever Europeans forced Africans into intimate contact.
Making love in Patwa
International Creole Day was celebrated all over the world on October 28. In Jamaica, the day passed with no notice in the national media, as far as I can tell. This is not really surprising. Patwa, Patois, dialect, Jamaican Creole or just plain Jamaican, whatever you call our local language, it has low social status.
True, there’s no Jamaican I know who makes love in English. In the height (or depth) of passion, no self-respecting yardie is going to moan and groan in English. The ‘heartical’ language of both love and war is ‘hard-core’ Jamaican. Incidentally, the spellchecker kept on changing my ‘heartical’ to heretical. I suppose it is heretical for me to claim that Patwa really is the heart language in which most Jamaicans live and move and have our being. Even if we do know other languages.
Many Jamaicans are in denial, refusing to accept the fact that Patwa is their mother tongue. English is the language in which they step up in life. Or so they think. So they try desperately to cultivate amnesia. ‘Dem no chat Patwa.’ But if you ‘jook’ them, you can bet your last dollar they would immediately remember their heart language.
In denial or not, if most Jamaicans were to track our use of language over a 10-minute period, many of us would probably be surprised to see just how much of our thinking is spontaneously done in Jamaican. A few years ago, I used to teach a course in Business English for a communications company. At the end of the module on bilingualism in Jamaica, I would give a little test: I asked participants to see how long they could speak only in English. The majority of them didn’t even make it out the door!
Jamaican Language Unit
On International Creole Day, the Jamaican Language Unit (JLU) at the University of the West Indies, Mona, hosted a most entertaining and informative forum on a wide range of social issues. Bertram Gayle of the Bible Society of the West Indies spoke about the great controversy over the translation of the Bible into Patwa. Some Christians see this project as a sacrilegious enterprise. They hope Jesus will come for His chosen people before all of the translating is done. Despite opposition, the Bible Society is pressing on the upward way, gaining new heights every day. So far, the Book of Luke has been published, along with a CD.
Kadian Walters, a lecturer at UWI, reported on the bilingual education project pioneered by the Jamaican Language Unit. Students in grades one to four in selected primary schools were taught in both English and Jamaican. They learned to be literate in both languages, as they demonstrated with complete self-confidence in a CVM TV news report on the successful experiment. I speculate that many parents would choose the bilingual programme for their children, if they were routinely given that option.
Andre Sherriah, a graduate student in the JLU, gave an exciting presentation on translating legal language into Patwa. He demonstrated the creativity that is needed to ensure that the technical language of the law does not become a weapon that beats down citizens. I gave a talk on the use of Patwa in the arts. This theme was also addressed by Nickesha Dawkins, who confirmed that our language is honoured abroad as foreign DJs and singers, like Bazil from France, just ‘tek it over an gone’.
Dr K’adamawe K’nife, an authority on social entrepreneurship, illustrated the ways in which his students efficiently translate the language of management theory into their mother tongue, demonstrating the flexibility of Jamaican Creole. All of this research makes me optimistic that one of these days our governor general will be empowered to utter even a few sentences of his throne speech in Jamaican. Better yet, one day, one day, a British monarch will no longer be Jamaica’s head of state. And that will be that. And ‘dat’.