Linguistic Bigotry

Robyn’s blog post “Conscientious Lyrics” got me searching YouTube for a particular interview.

For those among my readership who are not Jamaican, let me provide some background. On local news one night, Clifton Brown, a resident of Mavis Bank, a rural coffee community in eastern Jamaica, was interviewed about the poor and state of a bridge in his community, and the dangerous conditions that manifest themselves, especially during flooding. The interview was fired among the Facebook timelines of Jamaicans, but not nearly as much as the music video of a song produced from sound bites from this clip.

But that’s not the interview I was looking up. Wait a little. Let me get into more detail.

Why was Brown an overnight sensation? His speech. His twang that quickly earned him the nickname Cliftwang. But “twang” in our Jamaican language does not mean what it does in English. In Patwa, it refers to an accent that a (usually Jamaica) person puts on in an attempt to sound less Jamaican, or to make his/her speech sound closer to English. Combined with improper English grammar, these twangs often stir up much laughter among those who are better at English (and even those who are not…)

The interview I looked up was one that came after that first one. On an early morning talk show on JVJ called Smile Jamaica, Brown was called in with the mastermind behind his “hit” song, DJ Powa:

I felt myself becoming quite disgusted with the interviewers. Brown, in trying to bring attention to an issue that is clearly of tremendous importance to him, ended up being a laughing stock on national television, just because he can’t pronounce a few English words like the elite do. Clearly the deplorable conditions of the bridge and the danger it poses to even children was not important. It was overshadowed by the fact that his attempts at English as so very amusing.

It is this form of linguistic bigotry that plagues Jamaica. Business personnel blurt out, “Excuse me?” when someone calls or visits them with Patwa rolling of their tongues, and then proceed to laugh at them (and put them on speaker to let the entire office hear) when they cannot produce an English sentence. A woman turns up her nose at a group of children speaking perfect Patwa to her in church because, “They should know that in certain settings, it is not appropriate.” Information is disseminated in the queen’s English to monolingual Patwa users, leaving them to reply, “Mi no andastan we yaa se.” (I do not understand what you are saying.)

This is bigotry. Mastery of English does not make you better than anyone else. It does not mean you are more intelligent, does not mean that you should be taken more seriously. It just means you have a mastery of English. That’s all. Patwa is a language. It and its users deserve respect as much respect as any English-speaker.

I end this entry the same way Robyn did hers: “The Robertsfield bridge in Mavis Bank has yet to be fixed, by the way.”

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One Response to Linguistic Bigotry

  1. This is sooooooooo good, and so TRUE


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