I don’t usually give in to the demands of domineering men. But I simply couldn’t resist the appeal of Mr. R. Oscar Lofters who responded rather passionately to my column “Out of Many, Fi Wi Langgwij”, published on October 28, 2012: “I demand that from now on the professor writes her columns totally in Patwa. I refuse to read anymore of her columns written in English. Since Jamaicans all speak, write and understand Patwa, why waste time writing in a mixture of both?”
I suppose Mr. Lofters was being sarcastic. But the very thought that he might possibly have been sending a serious message to the Gleaner’s Opinion Page Editor sent waves of pleasure rushing through my being. Here was a man after my own heart who was up for creativity; a man with a lofty vision of what my mother tongue could do. Mr. Lofters seemed to be celebrating the unlimited potential of the Jamaican language as a tool of communication worthy of the Sunday Gleaner’s editorial page.
However much my brain was stimulated by the thought of submitting to Mr. Lofters’ seductive proposition, I knew it was all anti-climactic. My hands were tied. Four months ago, Mr. Lofters didn’t stand a chance in hell of having his ‘dream’ come true. I wasn’t allowed to write a whole column in Jamaican. I was restricted to one paragraph per week.
‘You Can’t Do Science In Patwa’
Then along came that VW Super Bowl ad! And in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, everything changed. The playing field is almost level. I’ve now been given ‘permission’ to write one column per month in Jamaican. From one paragraph to a ‘whole-a’ column! ‘Wat a sinting! Patwa step up inna life’. It’s an experiment that will run for five months.
If readers approve, I may even be able to write a ‘proper-proper’ bilingual column once again: one week in English, the other in Jamaican, as I did for the Observer in the 1990s. It wasn’t easy to get the conservative editors of that juvenile newspaper to agree. Youthfulness is no guarantee of creativity; and old age is no guarantee of wisdom.
With due respect to Mr. Lofters, I really don’t want to use ‘so-so Patwa’ each week, even though I thoroughly enjoy the challenges of writing expository prose in my mother tongue. It’s a language we’ve been taught to diss: it’s ‘limited’. Sceptics keep on making silly claims like, ‘You can’t do science in Patwa.’
They don’t know that speakers of a language can make it do anything they want. It’s not the language that’s doing the thinking. And if you need technical vocabulary for new concepts, you simply make it up or ‘borrow’ from another language, the way speakers of English do all the time.
‘Mix Up and Blenda’
Still for all, I’m never going to give up writing in English. I just love the quirkiness of the language. I think of English as the world’s greatest patois. Its vocabulary is a tasty stew of basic Anglo-Saxon words and a host of borrowings from other languages such as Greek, Latin, Old Norman, French, Arabic, Hindi, Japanese, Yoruba, Twi, Maori, Yiddish and, these days, even Jamaican!
Interestingly, the word ‘cashew’ entered the English language via Jamaica. The story of this word and lots of others is told by the linguist Frederic Cassidy in his most entertaining and informative book, Jamaica Talk: Three Hundred Years of the English Language in Jamaica. Of course, there were other languages in Jamaica over the centuries. The ‘mix up an blenda’ produced strange new words.
So ‘cashew’ comes from French ‘acajou’, from Portuguese ‘acaju’, from Tupi Indian ‘acajú’. According to Cassidy, the Oxford English Dictionary “first cites the word from 1703, but it was borrowed at least forty-five years before that time. In The State of Jamaica (dated post 1660), we find ‘Cashues’ in a list of fruits along with ‘supotillia, advocatas, custard apples’ and others”.
Once you understand the arbitrariness of language, it becomes much easier to accept variation as part of the natural flow of things. So when a Jamaican speaker pronounces ‘cashew’ as ‘kyáshu’ or ‘kúshu’, this is certainly not ‘bad English’. Especially since ‘cashew’ isn’t English at all. Cassidy also notes that the dropping off of the ‘a’ from ‘acajou’ “appears to be a part of the original adoption”. So Jamaicans are responsible for cashew losing its head.
Native speakers of English are often not hooked on ‘correctness’ in the way that up-tight, second-language learners often are. They actually experiment with their mother tongue, making it do all sorts of interesting things. Words like ‘bling’ and ‘diss’ have found their way into English not just as slang, but as ‘respectable’ new vocabulary, heard on the BBC.
‘Mi Just Kyaan Read Patwa’
The big problem with writing a column in Jamaican is the mindset of many potential readers. I’m always amazed at the way some people say with apparent pride, “Mi just kyaan read Patwa”. As though this is a sign of congenital superiority.
But many Jamaicans routinely read and write in our mother tongue. We just don’t seem to be conscious of what we’re doing. Or we don’t want to admit it. We send text messages in ‘Patwa’ all the time. And think of all those Jamaican jokes that circulate on the Internet.
There’s a standard writing system for the Jamaican language that was developed almost fifty years ago. But it has not been widely taught in school. That’s not surprising. Our school system really doesn’t take seriously the mother tongue of most Jamaicans. Well, better late than never. Starting next week, I’ll be using the official writing system along with a ‘chaka-chaka’ version. Adventurous readers will get a chance to learn the ‘prapa-prapa sistim’.