Out of Many, Fi Wi Langgwij

Lake Rotorua

Late one night, several years ago, I find myself in idle conversation with a drunken Maori man in the main bus station in the city of Auckland.  I’d just come by train from Rotorua, a fantastic region of New Zealand full of geysers, mud pools and all sorts of volcanic activity.  I was quite tired from the four-hour journey so I was definitely not in the mood for conversation with sober people, much more drunks.

“Kia ora!”, the man calls out.  After almost a week in New Zealand I know this means ‘hi’ in Maori.  I pretend to be deaf.  But this old man is persistent and quite loudly repeats his ‘kia ora’.  He proudly announces, “That’s ‘hello’ in my language, Maori.”  Big laugh now.  “You can say it?”, he challenges me.

Fijian women in traditional dress

I say to myself, “This man drunk but im not drunk to dat”.  So I decide to humour him.  I imitate his greeting and he laughs heartily.  “Good,” he says, “Not like these pakeha people.  Can’t talk Maori”. I also now know that ‘pakeha’ means ‘white people’ in Maori.  The old man warms to the conversation.  “You from Fiji?”, he asks.  “No”, I respond.

Naturally, this monosyllabic answer is getting us nowhere.  So he follows up, “Where?”  I say, “Africa”.  Then he asks, and I should have seen it coming, “Kia ora!  How you say ‘hello’ in your language?”  Big trouble now.  What am I going to tell this man?  Im drunk, so I’m tempted to make up some mumbo-jumbo.  But that would be taking a joke too far.

English colonized by Africans

So I draw my ‘real-real’ language, Jamaican.  I tell him that in my language we say, “Wa a gwaan?”  So for the next few minutes this drunken man keeps on repeating, “Wa gwaan?”  He doesn’t quite catch the extra ‘a’ in the middle.

My sister, Donnette, who used to work for an airline company and so could do crazy things like fly from Maryland to New Zealand for a long weekend, is by this time shaking her head in amazement.  Her contribution to the conversation is, “I hope is not this kind of fraudulent information you been giving out along the way”.  I was on a six-week lecture tour of the Pacific.

“Fraudulent?” I protested.  “‘Wa a gwaan?’ is kinda African”.  After all.  Even though ‘Wa a gwaan?’ is really Jamaican not African, we all know where Jamaican came from:  various dialects of 17th English colonized by speakers of various West African languages, for the most part.  I know that some backward people still insist that Jamaican is not a language; it’s just a ‘corruption’ of English.  Africans are doing the corrupting.

So ‘wa a gwaan?’ is nothing but a rotten version of ‘What’s going on?’  But, trust me, nobody who doesn’t know Jamaican, drunk or no drunk, would ever figure out that ‘Wa a gwaan?’ started life as English.  It has been completely disguised.

Language death and rebirth

While in New Zealand I was fortunate to interview Professor Pat Hohepa at Auckland University’s Maori Studies Centre.  One of his big concerns is what he calls ‘language death’.  There was a period in New Zealand’s recent history when it looked as if the Maori language was dying out.

     Now, there’s a concerted effort to teach Maori in schools.  Speaking the Maori language is recognized as an essential way of keeping the culture alive.  And it’s not only Maoris who need to learn the language.  If pakehas are really serious about creating a truly bi-cultural New Zealand, they will have to learn Maori too.

Professor Hohepa also talked about reggae music in Maori.  And he highlighted Bob Marley’s revolutionary music as a language of resistance for the Maoris in their struggle to regain control over their collective destiny:  “Every man got a right to decide his own destiny”.

I wonder how long it’s going to take us in Jamaica to realise the value of the new mother tongues Africans created in this country and across the African diaspora.  Our educators don’t seem to understand that as long as we tell children that they ‘chat bad’ when they use their mother tongue, we are planting the seeds of low self-esteem.  And we will reap badness.  Or, perhaps, we do understand and that’s why we refuse to acknowledge Jamaican as a ‘proper-proper’ language.

International Creole Day

Creole languages map

Last Friday was International Creole Day. The Jamaican Language Unit at the University of the West Indies, Mona, led the local celebrations.  Regretfully, these were affected by Hurricane Sandy.  Across the Caribbean region and the wider Creole world, the resilience of the speakers of often-marginalised languages was acknowledged.

French Creole languages are spoken and written in Haiti, St. Lucia, Dominica, Guadeloupe, Martinique, French Guyana, Reunion, Seychelles, Mauritania and Louisiana.   The vocabulary of our own Jamaican Creole is mostly of English origin.  So it’s sometimes not so easy for amateurs to see how different the language really is from English.

We don’t fully understand ‘wat a gwaan’ with the other aspects of the Jamaican language such as grammar, word order and the structure of sounds.  And we arrogantly refuse to take the linguists seriously even though they actually know what they’re talking about.

Mother and Tongues by Vito Bica

If we had stopped to listen to the linguists who have been doing serious research on Caribbean Creoles for more than half a century, we would have realised by now that we should have been joyously celebrating the Jamaican language in this fiftieth anniversary of independence.  For language is one of the primal expressions of identity.

One of the big ironies of our racialised national motto is that it fails to recognise that it’s not a vague ‘out of oneness’ that unites us as a people.   It’s the specificity of the Jamaican language.  Most Jamaicans, irrespective of class, colour, gender, sexual orientation and age, are more or less competent speakers of Jamaican.  And if you don’t know the language, you are the odd one out: yu salt!  Yu no know wat a gwaan.


Governor General Gives Throne Speech In Patois

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.

Dame Pearlette Louisy

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

Cover of Luuk

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

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’.