Patwa… It stil de ya

Some people have the idea that a linguist spends his/her time bashing other people’s English. Nope. That’s the prerogative of English teachers and other such grammar Nazis.

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In linguistics, there are two opposing concepts: descriptivism, and prescriptivism. The prescriptivist promotes (prescribes) ideas of what good and proper language is, what it isn’t, may actively denounce the use of such ‘bad’ language (even denounce the people, perhaps). The descriptivist, on the other hand, will study language, and, well, describe it. According to the descriptivist view, there is no such thing as good or bad language; language is neutral.

And yet, the descriptivist believes there is value in all language; that’s why they study it.

So, what does this mean for me? It means that, unlike so many other Jamaicans, I have learnt through exposure to linguistics to appreciate my English language skills without looking down on those who don’t have them. It means that I have been able to identify language-based discrimination in my country, rather than scoffing, shaking my head, and thinking that ‘those’ people just need to learn English.

It means I value Jamaican Creole/Patois as a cultural language that is part of my nation’s identity.

I was told once that when Jamaica got its independence in 1962, Patois would stop being used after a few decades, with better education. But, guess what: it’s still here.

We've been trying to outrun our language for so many years...

We’ve been trying to outrun our language for so many years…

What does that mean? Maybe the education system needs to try harder? Or maybe change its approach.

Stop fighting it. Work with it. I’ve been in classrooms in which students are completely bewildered by the pristine (or attempts at pristine) English of their reading materials. I’ve had to sit in silence as teachers get subject-verb agreement wrong on the chalkboard, and even misunderstand sentences in the exercises they’re giving their students. I’ve seen customers utterly confused at the information a perfectly polite (or not so polite) customer service rep is providing them in the Queen’s tongue.

Isn’t that discrimination?

We can either empower people in their own tongue, or we can oppress them with that of their slavemasters from generations past. The choice is ours.


This is Part I of II… or more. Look out for the next installment, in which I’ll explore how we can fix this dilemma. | Part 2 | Part 3

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2 Responses to Patwa… It stil de ya

  1. Pingback: Patwa… Wi fi yuuz it – Mr Multilingual

  2. Pingback: Patwa… ina skuul! – Mr Multilingual

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