Not many people realize that Jamaica is a bilingual society. This isn’t surprising since the Caribbean island goes out of its way to promote itself as a nation of English-speakers; after all English is the language with the greatest global currency today. The problem is that in doing so Jamaicans willfully sweep under the rug their mother tongue– Jamaican Patois or Patwa –the polyglot lingua franca of the hoi polloi or common people. Patwa, which developed over the centuries to negotiate social interaction between slave-owners and the enslaved, is an oral language, a Creole.
Creoles, the hybrid languages of the former slave colonies and plantation societies are routinely devalued in comparison to European languages. They are considered inferior because of not being scribal, making them vulnerable to the widely held prejudice that non-written languages lack conceptual depth, thereby restricting thought itself. Their expressive range is considered too limited to handle technological or scientific subject matter and the numbers of people who speak and understand them too miniscule to make them worth studying or preserving.
Thus in Jamaica English reigns supreme on the patios of the privileged while patois/Patwa rules the street. Touting itself as an English-speaking polity (the only official language of the country) disregard for Patwa, the first language of many Jamaicans, is virtually built into the official institutions of society. This has resulted in the relegation of monolingual Patwa-speakers to second class citizenship, because their language (and by extension their culture) is considered an unsuitable subject for school curricula or for polite or official discourse; thus like the proverbial man without a state, Creole or Patwa speakers are in effect rendered persona non grata at the official level.
Countries such as Haiti and Martinique manifest a similar identity crisis in relation to their Creoles or mother tongues which are deprecated in contrast to the French language inherited from their colonizers. Meanwhile as far away as Australia, a new parliamentary report is challenging the pro-English ‘monolingual mindset’ by constitutionally recognizing its indigenous languages and promoting education in them. The report, Our Land, Our Languages, recognizes that language is “inseparable from culture, kinship, land and family and is the foundation on which the capacity to learn, interact and to shape identity is built.”
The Jamaica Language Unit at the University of the West Indies, an offshoot of the University’s Linguistics Department, has been arguing for years that freedom from discrimination on the ground of language be inserted into the Charter of Rights here. Ironically monolingual Patwa-speakers have more rights in the UK, US or Canada where interpreters are provided if and when one of them appears in court. In Jamaica such citizens have to muddle through on their own with judges and lawyers who refuse to speak anything but the Queen’s English.
Regrettably elite regard for English in Jamaica is almost fetishistic; its hegemonic status and global currency are used to trump any argument for the elevation of Patwa from its lowly status or for its use as an educational tool. In school the medium of instruction is English, a severe disadvantage to the children of monolingual Patwa-speakers, who have the handicap of learning history, science, geography and other subjects in a language they barely know or have enough fluency in. This system benefits middle and upper class children who come from homes where English is learnt as the first language.
MIT-based Haitian linguist Michael deGraffe has identified the same problem in Haiti despite Kreyol being recognized as an official language there. Clearly, changing the status of Jamaican Patwa isn’t enough to correct what has become a deeply entrenched mindset. It must be used, as linguists at the University of the West Indies have been recommending, as the language of instruction for monolingual Patwa-speakers. Meanwhile ventures such as the Patois Bible project (the translation of the Bible into Patwa) initiated by Malcolm Gladwell’s maternal aunt, Faith Linton, are making inroads into the way Jamaicans view their language.
The problem with relying exclusively on any one European language as the official language is that the citadels of so-called Standard English or French can just as quickly become strangleholds when exaggerated respect for it fosters exclusion, conservatism and officiousness rather than the free-wheeling creativity typically associated with Creole or Patwa and the sonic culture it generates.
Born out of forced contact between wildly disparate cultures, Creole vernaculars are actually highly mobile cross-cultural languages capable of rapid change and very comfortable with new technologies and the new media of communication. They are inherently languages of negotiation, barter and accommodation, of finding solutions using the slightest of resources. European languages, on the other hand, especially as spoken, practised and codified in the postcolony, become rigid grammars used to police and enforce formality, bureaucratic privilege and ‘good taste’. As a result the Jamaican postcolonial elite are literally trapped in English–like flies in amber.
Note that in the Jamaican context it is not the English-speaking elites who have put the country on the map so to speak, but the supposedly narrow-in-outlook, less-educated, Patwa-speaking majority whose exploits in music and athletics, areas where their lack of English cannot hold them back, have dominated global attention. The former’s obsession with creating “national” culture for the Creole nation-states of the Caribbean, slavishly dependent on European models, has resulted in a kind of unproductive mimicry, an inflexible adherence to models of governance, aesthetics and literacy which have long been reformatted in their countries of origin. In my opinion the antipathy of such national cultures to the Creole languages native to the region, has also deprived them of the vernacular creativity encoded in such cross-cultural linguistic forms.
At the moment Jamaica is—metaphorically speaking—a tongue-tied nation, with all the problems attendant on such a handicap; Tongue-tied not in the sense of being speechless but in its inability to fluently articulate its disparate selves. Language and identity are locked in a zero-sum game, with Jamaica’s two languages forever pitted against one another like implacably opposed rivals; if one ‘wins’, the other loses. An unproductive stalemate has been reached. There is an urgent need for the country’s vernacular, Patwa, to be given equal status with English and for official recognition of Jamaica as a bilingual society. But any attempt to initiate the first step in this direction is viewed as an assault on English, and by extension, on those who believe or are invested in its superior status.
Perhaps Jamaicans should take the advice of the world’s most famous Patwa-speaker, Bob Marley, who sang “The things people refuse are the things they should use,“ echoing the biblical sentiment that “the stone that the builder refused will always be the head corner stone.” Will Jamaica ever realize its full potential unless it recognizes Patwa as its head corner stone?