After hearing my mother refer to the 1977 mini-series Roots as a child, I felt a strong pull towards the History Channel’s remake that premiered this year. About a month ago, I sat with my friend to watch every high and low of the story Kunta Kinte and his descendants, from a life of freedom in the Gambia to slavery in the US, and subsequent liberation.
Although the historical accuracy of Kunta’s story has been called into question, and the author of the book the series was based on has been accused of plagiarism, as a work of historical fiction, I found Roots a very compelling tale, and I would definitely recommend it. I trust the History Channel to be as accurate as possible in its depiction of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and that’s why I decided to watch it.
Damn. If it looked anything like that… my ancestors went through a lot! This is a blog about languages, though; so we won’t get too deep into the plot. (Haha! Rhyme!)
Some thoughts came to me as I watched Roots, and as I ruminated on it later. It was very interesting to see the progression of Kunta, a native user of the language of the Mandinka people to his English-speaking descendants. He teaches his daughter Kizzy some of the Mandinka’s language, but by the time of her grandchildren, one of them, Tom, laments something along the lines of, “I don’t know the African words.”
Seeing language death portrayed in such a way really spoke to me. Of course, Kunta was just a single Mandinka, and not an entire community, but he represents the various West African peoples whose language died when they were taken to the “New World”.
In trying to compare the language situation among African Americans to that of my own native land, I have to wonder: how did another language manage evolve in Jamaica (in the form of Jamaican Creole/Patwa), but (as far as I know, anyway) that didn’t happen in America? Yes, there is Ebonics (aka African American Vernacular English), but, if I am not mistaken, that is a dialect (variety) of American English (which is a collection of dialects), just as there are dialects of English all over the world.
Although AAVE does have some features of Patwa (because of similar influences, I’d guess) and is distinct from other dialects of English, including the other American varieties of English, but it is still, to my ears, and according to linguists, still English. Patwa is another story, though. It’s distinct enough to be classified as a completely different language; and is not mutually intelligible with English (unless you happen to be bilingual, like many of us in Jamaica are).
So, how did this happen? Maybe it’s because of our size? We were a tiny island colony, after all; and America is a huge landmass. I don’t know much about history, or about sociolinguistics… So, I don’t have the answer as to why Ebonics/AAVE did not evolve into a its own language the way Patwa did. But it’s definitely something to think about.
Anyway, watching Roots and other American slavery-themed films has made me very curious about how different slavery might have been in Jamaica. I should really dig in, so I can find out more about my roots.