Separate, yet equal

Creole languages have an interesting place in society. They are often associated with the lower class, and so are often considered ‘lesser’ languages, ‘bad’ languages, or not languages at all. Examples of Creole sneaking into, or worse, making very conspicuous appearances in a speaker’s expressions of ‘higher’ language are broadcast and ridiculed on social media and national television alike. Jamaicans: Remember “the people what are deading”?

And, of course, "Cliff-Twang".

And, of course, “Cliff-Twang”.

We who live in diglossic Creole societies like Jamaica often have very clear social delineations that bar the Creole from entering the ‘higher’ language (even if we [individually] don’t have very clear linguistic ones). But what about the other way around?

I recently learnt that there is a test Wikipedia for Jamaican Creole. I have to admit, I’m excited to see this! I hope we the Jamaican people come together and develop it. The only page I have seen so far is Ischri a Japan (History of Japan). As one blogger wrote, “It would be nearly impossible to complete this project without some standard orthography” for the language, which we now have.

While this initiative is good, it has shows me anew one challenge that bilingual Jamaica has with Patwa. The Ischri a Japan page is written in the standard way. The writing system is the easy part. The harder part is being true to the vocabulary and grammar of the language.

The problem is, the way our education system and society are structured (especially in urban Jamaica) discourages the use of the Creole language as ‘bad’ and ‘improper’ language while assuming that everyone has proficiency in it. The result is a society in which some people think they know and speak it well, but don’t. They are taught the rules and vocabulary of English in schools, but not those of Patwa.

And so, their Patwa is riddled with English; a phenomenon evidenced in the Ishcri a Japan page:

Patwa: “evidens se piipl wehna liv pan di ailan a Japan ina di opa pieliolitik piiriad”
Translation: “evidence says the people were living in the island of Japan in the upper paleolithic period”
(formatting is mine)

Wahn picho we jraa ina di stuon iej

Wahn picho we jraa ina di stuon iej

I don’t claim to be an expert myself, so I assert this as my humble opinion: there’s too much English presence in this sentence. What is opa pieliyolitik? That is an English concept, English phrase. Taking the term (upper paleolithic)  and putting it in Patwa spelling would be like saying to someone, “You are too hungry-belly,” or “She mashed up my medz,” and expecting to pass that off as English.* I think the idea could be expressed in a way more true to the language by saying, “ina di orli paat a di stuon iej.” Don’t you think?

Similarly, the writer has “sorka 300 BK”. “Circa” is another English expression that was Patwa-ised. Could this not be conveyed with the Patwa word ‘roun’ or ’bout’? (I like the idea of BC being Jamaicanised to BK [Bifuo Krais], but I think it’s important to come together to try and standardise them…)

Going back to the quote above, one other thing I notice is “di ailan a Japan”. The poor grammar here seems to me the result of inadvertently translating word for word from the English phrase “the islands of Japan”. The plural marker “dem” is missing; Japan is more than one island.

I believe these are all honest mistakes, but it’s something we can all be mindful of as we seek to develop the language. Haiti has been successful in establishing Haitian Creole and French as two distinct languages in their education system and society, with even a standard way of writing.

With some effort, we can, too. And the pay-off will be great.

Any of you thinking of taking part in the test? Wikipedia’s introduction to the test says, “If you know this language, you are encouraged to contribute!”


*That may end up with you being the target of ridicule; if English purity is so important, so should Patwa’s.

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