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Stabroek News

Expect developments in language debate
published: Thursday | August 21, 2008

Louis Marriott, Contributor


The mother tongue of a society is clearly one of the aspects of its heritage that defines its nationality. Yet, nearly half a century after the formal declaration of Jamaican nationhood, some powerful Jamaicans continue to wage a relentless campaign to suppress our native language.

In 1970, I was commissioned by the English by the radio department of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) to write a drama series aimed at improving communication between Creole-speaking Jamaican immigrants in Britain and the host populations with whom they interacted from day to day. The BBC engaged, as linguistic advisor for the series, a brilliant young man who had just completed a PhD programme at Cambridge University on 'Jamaican pronunciation in London'. He had done his field work among Jamaicans in London, as well as spending a couple of months with tape recorder and notebook in a St Andrew slum and in a poor village in Westmoreland.


I was intrigued by the fact that the BBC, generally regarded as the greatest authority on the English language, was very clear in its policy that Jamaican Creole, though largely derived from English, had evolved as a different language, was not bad English or broken English, and should be accorded full respect as a separate language. This contrasted starkly with the attitude of that organisation's counterparts in Jamaica

The linguistic advisor, now one of the world's most accomplished language experts, introduced me to Beryl Loftman Bailey's Jamaican Creole Syntax. After reading that seminal work on Jamaican grammar and considering the Concise Oxford Dictionary's definition of a language as "the method of human communication, either spoken or written, consisting of the use of words in a structured and conventional way", I wondered how anyone could argue that English was a language and 'Jamaican' not.

On my first visit to Curaçao, in 1969, I marvelled at the standard of English spoken by my hotel chambermaids until they explained that in primary school, they compulsorily learnt four languages - their native Papiamento as the first language, the colonial Dutch as the second, and then the dominant languages of the Caribbean, Spanish and English. Serving a population of slightly more than 100,000 were two daily newspapers written in Papiamento. I subsequently learnt that in some places, it is normal for four-year-olds to speak four languages.


That brings us home to the great 'patois'/'patwa' debate in Jamaica. The anti-patois posse apparently believe that our children cannot cope with more than one language. Their public argument is based on a false premise; that the protagonists of Jamaican language education aim to displace standard English with Jamaican, when what is really proposed is bilingual education.

While institutions like Birmingham College in Warwickshire, England, and York University in Toronto, Canada, are offering courses in the Jamaican language, we wallow in self-denial, calling our systematic language 'patwa' or 'patois', French for 'rough speech', and traducing our linguists by calling them hypocrites who, while benefiting from their superior education, are intent on denying poor benighted Jamaican children of the opportunity to expand their horizons by becoming competent in the use of English.

One day, we shall all wake up to find one of two developments that at least some of us will find unpalatable. First, some smart overseas institutions will capitalise on the worldwide popularity and lure of Brand Jamaica by offering more and more courses in the Jamaican language.

Second, one or other of our two major political parties will realise that recent findings of a survey by the language unit of the University of the West Indies (UWI) are real; that contrary to the impression created by those with disproportionate access to the mass media, the vast majority of the Jamaican people recognise their language as valid and want it to be offered in schools. When that happens and the party puts the promotion of the language in its next election manifesto, watch out for flying sparks.

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