Patwa: Building on the Past

The Jamaican language is now at a place it wasn’t a few decades ago.

Bob Marley was discouraged from using Patois in his songs for fear that they wouldn’t be accepted. Now, many Jamaican (and even some foreign) artists use the language in their lyrics with great success. When my parents were young, they would not hear Patois on the radio or on TV. Now, it’s in everything from advertisements to interviews of Jamaican citizens on the news. (Though not on the lips of newscasters, of course.)

LuukAnd we cannot mention there is a Jamaican New Testament, which was launched in 2012. As a Jamaican Observer article states (and it’s no surprise to us who know the linguistic environment of this country) people complain that it is irreverent, and against the purpose of the Scriptures: “many people usually erupt in laughter upon listening to the scriptures being read in [P]atois, instead of reflecting on the words.” (Ingrid Brown, “Patois Bible a distraction, say critics“)

To answer these sort of criticisms, the history of English is often referenced. In fact, Brown quotes John Roomes, Executive Director of the organisation responsible for Di Jamiekan Nyuu Testiment, as saying, “The precious King James version was treated the same way [P]atois is treated now.” And he goes on to say that, “Years after John Wycliffe [the first person to translate the Bible into English] died of natural causes, sad to say, he wasn’t even [buried at a church]. The established church at the time burnt his bones in the square publicly.” (ibid.)

Building upon the foundation is not easy. There are always those who would fight against progress. Part of that progress for this language is a standard way of writing.

Of course, Patois has been written for a long time. A 1781 document in the language was discovered a Maureen Warner Lewis in 1997. (Know the expression ‘If yu kyaahn kech Kwaako, yu kech im shot’? I think it’s cool that Kwaako [Quaco] is the name of one of the people in this text.)

But, of course, it was written based on some attempt at following English rules. The interesting thing about English is that, for many interesting reasons, its first era of printing (including Bibles) was marked varied spellings. In fact, it was at least as chaotic, I would argue, as the chaka-chaka way people write Patois today. If the great English language of scholarship and logic had to go through so much to get to where it is now, why are we so hung up about Patois? At least this language had a standard writing system for its first Bible.

There are comments on this observer article, and one in particular caught my eye:

This doesn’t make any sense at all, while all Jamaicans can speak patios not many can read it or write it properly, try reading the example in the article and it’s far more difficult than in English…changing the words Jesus Christ (Jiizas Krais) and Mary ( Mieri) and a lot more of the words were unnecessary, rather than read it fluently like the English version you have to figure it out, the result, you sound illiterate or like a child learning to read. [sic]

First of all, not all Jamaicans can speak Patois. But that’s for another blog entry.

Second of all, why should it be surprising that it’s hard to read a writing system the first time you come across it? Think about it. Written language isn’t like spoken (or signed) language; it cannot be acquired by simple exposure the way a child automatically develops the language of his surroundings. It has to be taught.

To be fair, it's probably easier to speak against the writing system to admit you're illiterate in it...

To be fair, it’s probably easier to speak against the writing system than to admit you’re illiterate in it…

And third, it should make sense that the way this language is written would be different from the way English is written. The words are pronounced differently; Patois and English have very different phonologies.

Did you know that there is precedence for this sort of orthographical shift, though? To find one particular historical parallel, we have to travel over land and sea to an archipelago that you’ll find in Asia.

Ou iragaana kom ina Japaniiz raitin.

Ou iragaana kom ina Japaniiz raitin.

Centuries ago, the Japanese language was written with only kanji, Chinese characters. Japanese had even adopted some of the sounds of the Chinese language (with some modification, of course). But this pictographic Chinese system was not ideal to represent the Japanese language. Thus, a compact syllabary system was created, it is said, in the 9th century by the Buddhist priest Kuukai (空海). This first system, known as manyougana (万葉仮名) evolved over time to what we know today as hiragana (平仮名), and katakana (片仮名).

With this kana system, the Japanese people could express their language in a simple written way so that it represented their speech more clearly. They did retain some use of kanji, though, useful as its pictographic nature is. So, while they do still have the kanji “月” to represent the meaning of “moon”, they can write “つき” (tsuki) to represent the sound in the word for “moon” and “なんがつ” (何月, nangatsu) if they want to ask the question of “what month?”

どうもありがとうございました、弘法大師空海。

どうもありがとうございました、弘法大師空海。

So, now let’s return home to Jamaica. I say it makes sense that Patois be written using a different writing system; i.e. “changing the words” because they already are “changed”. The Patois words for the numeral 3 is a homophone to the word that means “large plant with large (wooden) stem”: chrii/chii. The question word “what” has evolved into more than one Patois word (wa and we), as did the English word “for” (fi and fa). And let’s not even get into the fact that these words are used in different ways grammatically than their English origins.

The commenter on the Observer article finished with this:

For me patios is a mixture of “broken” english and slangs and does not work well beyond the spoken word. [sic]

Really, I think that’s sad. But it makes sense that this commenter would think that if this thinking is filtered through an English lens. If you write Patois words as wha’, t’rue, an’*… of course it’s going to look like “broken” English.

But there’s nothing “broken” about Patois. Language evolves, and the result is often a new language altogether. That is what Patois is. Any language can be written; and it is often quite counterproductive to use the writing system of one language and impose it on another. That’s why this system makes sense.

Brik pan brik bil ous. And so, we build upward. And I believe that one way to build our country is through our language.


*Written correctly in the new writing system as wa, chruu/chuu, and an.

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