Patwa… Wi fi yuuz it

When I was younger, I hadn’t realised how much politics was involved in language. As the adage goes, “A language is a dialect with an army and navy.” Those in power decide what is good and worthwhile language, often for their own benefit, rather than those who actually use the languages being considered.

Let me just come out and say it: I believe that Jamaican Creole (Patois) should be made an official language of Jamaica.

Wikipedia acknowledges it as the de facto (in fact) national language, even as English is the official one.

Wikipedia acknowledges it as the de facto (in fact) national language, even as English is the official one.

Here’s where people often jump up immediately and say that that would cause us to lose investment and prevent us from getting new business relationships, etc, etc. But I did not say Patois should be our only official language. Like Singapore, we could have more than one: English and Patois.

To me, though, a nation’s official language is not just about how a country deals with other countries, but also how it deals with its own people.

The higher-ups don’t really like to say/accept it, but the language of the majority of people in Jamaica, linguists say, is Patois. With (pretty much) all our official information (governmental, legal, news broadcasts) in English, the ability of many of us to understand what is happening in our country is, sadly, not so good.

Take the proceedings of the Jamaican Parliament and Senate, for example. It’s in some of the most HIGHfalutin English I have ever heard; big words, technical jargon, pretty much as close to pristine Standard English grammar as you can get. And yet, those same politicians, come campaign time, colour their speeches and ads with Jamaican language and flavour. The people are left out of the loop; until the powers that be want their votes, of course.

You see, making Patois an official language means that the rights of its speakers would have to be respected. I read a Gleaner article once (about the attitudes of wholesale owners to the dollar coin) with this quote: “them don’t want to bank them money so them no want the heavy silver (coins)”. As it is now, we are more concerned with making sure our information is presented in clear English than making sure it’s understandable locally. We write the Jamaican language using English rules, and add English commentary to explain it. Patois gets no such attention.

Always looking out, not in. That’s always been Jamaica’s problem

We should ask ourselves: What is more important? Making sure our people understand the information? Or making sure they get it in English?

Jamaica is a country of two (main) languages. Many of us see the two as mutually intelligible. We’ve witnessed conversations in which one person speaks English and the other Patois, and they understand each other. Many of us use both languages throughout the day, even within the same sentences.

But that does not mean that that is the case of the monolingual. Drop an American in Downtown Kingston and see how much he understands. And there is one case right here in Jamaica that I’ll never forget, as related by a Prof Carolyn Cooper:

One morning, as I waited in a Resident Magistrate’s court for my case to be heard, I listened in amazement as the judge explained in quite sophisticated English how she was proposing to handle a dispute about unpaid rent in another case.

The defendant was told that the case was going to be sent to a mediator who would discuss exactly how much rent she would have to pay.  The distressed defendant kept on insisting in Jamaican that she didn’t owe as much rent as the landlord claimed.  The judge continued speaking in English, simply repeating her proposal.  This back-and-forth went on for a good few minutes.

At the risk of being deemed in contempt of court, I jumped up and asked the judge if she would allow me to act as interpreter for the defendant.  She agreed.  As soon as the woman understood the proposal, she accepted it.  What angered me was the smug question the judge then asked: “Is that what I should have said?”  To which I disdainfully replied, “Yes, Your Honour.”
‘Patwa’ Rights and Wrongs/‘Patwa’ Raits an Nat so Rait

This kind of thing happens more often than many of us want to accept. And if we care for these people, we can and should change things. Instead of basically lying to the world, why not show them our true face? It’s not like lying to them makes our people better able to speak English, anyway. We are a country of two languages. Why not start acting like it?

So, what would an officially diglossic Jamaica look like?

Media broadcasts, speeches, etc from the government made available in both languages. Patois newspapers. Bilingual newspapers. Bilingual websites. Customer service representatives code switching to the language of the customer. Students being taught in their native language, Patois. Businesses having telephone recordings that say, “For English, press 1. Ef a Patwa yu waahn, pres 2.”

And what are the potential benefits to our people?

Knowledge and understanding! Job creation. (Patois-English translators and interpreters, Patois speech writers, Patois-speaking telephone operators…) People not treated as, or made to feel stupid because they can’t speak English as well as others.

And the list doesn’t end there.

Even though Patois is not officially recognised, there are foreigners who want to learn it. Those silly, even offensive and lewd Patois book for foreigners to learn Jamaican actually do sell. Clearly there is something there we can capitalise on.

If we give it a chance, we can see that Patois is not a liability, but an asset.


Part 2 of a 3-part series. In the next installment, I will discuss the issue of education in a creole language environment. | Part 1 | Part 3

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2 Responses to Patwa… Wi fi yuuz it

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

  2. Pingback: Patwa… It stil de ya – Mr Multilingual

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