The Things People Refuse…

On Jamaica’s linguistic identity crisis…

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?

Swiss German: How Europeans treat their Creoles

The relevance of Swiss German, a European Creole to debates about Caribbean Creoles is highlighted.

 

In the comments in reaction to The Power of Creole, the Boston Globe article I quoted from in my last post a HughMann makes the following points:

 

In the German part of Switzerland (72%), people speak Swiss German dialect in everyday speech, although literary German is the official language and is the language of the newspapers and formal life. The children enter first grade speaking the dialect and make the transition to German by the end of the year. All instruction from then on is in German, and, if a student has difficulty in understanding, the teacher may switch to dialect momentarily to clarify it. This has not impeded the children’s education. Why is it different in Haiti and Jamaica? Just as we in the U.S. maintain that everyone should speak English to succeed in commerce and business, literary French and English are needed in Haiti and Jamaica for the same reason. By all means, Creole should not be denigrated, but neither should French. Mais, oui!

Why is it different in Haiti and Jamaica indeed? While one appreciates the overall point being made Mann ends up cautioning against the denigration of French as if valorizing Creole automatically means a turning away from European language! To point out the power of Creole is not to diss English, French or German Herr Mann! In fact it is a Jamaican who uses the example of Swiss German to better effect in the blogpost by Flagitious Offscourings quoted below:

Swiss German is spoken in all but a few contexts – the classroom (though not the playground – not only do the schoolkids use Swiss German on the playground, but so do the teachers); in multi-lingual parliamentary sessions; on the main news broadcast; and in the presence of German-speaking foreigners. There are many formal contexts in which Swiss German is the norm, such as business meetings, and court testimony.

He didn’t say this (it would have been un-Swiss to say it out loud) but it seemed clear to me that the use of Swiss German was a matter of pride, and perhaps an important differentiator for the Swiss people.

Somehow it didn’t seem important that his native language was not a written language. Nor that, as he admitted, Swiss German speakers are usually far less fluent in High German. Nor that their language was not intelligible to German-speaking foreigners.

It hasn’t crippled their economy to have a native language that is unknown outside their borders. There is no social stigma associated with the use of Swiss German.

It has its place, and High German has its place, and that’s all there is to it.

Hallelujah mi seh!

The Great Jamaican/Haitian Language Wars

The perils of dissing Creole languages in the countries where they’re spoken.

Clovis, Sunday Observer, Jan 31, 2010

Well, I’ve always known that my views on Jamaican Creole or Patwa, the native language here, were contentious but sound. Still for all those who’ve doubted what i’ve written on the subject please read what Michael DeGraff, an MIT Associate Professor of Linguistics, Syntax, Morphology, Language Change, Creole Studies, and Haitian Creole has to say on the subject. Here’s an excerpt from a Boston Globe article on him and his work:

The Power of Creole
Beneath Haiti’s problems lies a deep conflict with its own language. An MIT professor has a bold plan to fix that.

When Michel DeGraff was a young boy in Haiti, his older brother brought home a notice from school reminding students and parents of certain classroom rules. At the top of the list was “no weapons.” And right below it, DeGraff still remembers: “No Creole.” Students were supposed to use French, and French only.

It was like this all over the country, and still is. Despite the fact that the vast majority of Haitian children grow up hearing and speaking exclusively Haitian Creole–the language used in their villages and homes, in their music, and in their proverbs, jokes, and jingles–the minute they start school they are forced to start all over in a language they don’t know. French is the language of Haiti’s tiny ruling class, and for children who come from that world, this poses no problem. But for all the others, being forced to use French makes it nearly impossible to learn. Many students just stop talking in class, going silent. And according to an estimate from the Ministry of Education, less than a third of students who enter first grade reach sixth grade, and only 10 percent of those who start high school pass the exam that is given at the end….

“Haiti will never be able to rise to its potential if you have 90 percent of Haitians who cannot be instructed properly,” DeGraff said. “Once you open up that reservoir, what can happen? So many things can happen….Imagine how many well-prepared minds you would have to try to solve the country’s problems.”

Were you to substitute Jamaican Patwa for the words Haitian Creole, the article would still be accurate because the situation DeGraffe describes is exactly the one that prevails here. Read what i’ve said on the subject before and see what i mean:

Cake Soap and Creole: The Bleaching of the Nation…
In Jamaica, Patwa, skin-bleaching, Uncategorized on January 12, 2011 at 4:24 pm

Historian Elsa Goveia put her finger on it several decades ago when she said the structuring principle of Caribbean societies is “the belief that the blacker you are the more inferior you are and the whiter you are the more superior you are.”

Until this reality changes people are going to think that the best way to advance in such societies is to lighten your skin colour. People can fulminate all they want and express litres of outrage, it will make no difference.

To me bleaching your skin is fundamentally no different from deciding that Creole /Patwa , if that is your mother tongue, is so lowly and contemptible linguistically that it is not worthy of being spoken or allowed in schools.  Edouard Glissant described how in Martinique it was common to see “In beautiful rounded white letters on a clean blackboard at the reopening of school: it is forbidden to speak Creole in class or on the playground.” And Jamaica is no different.

The logic is the same: English/French/Spanish is the language of universal currency so our children must only learn English and must actively be discouraged from speaking Jamaican or Patwa, the versatile, volatile language of the streets here that for many is their native tongue. Similarly skin bleachers reason that since white/light skin is almost universally valued higher than darker skin tones, they must use any means necessary to acquire it.

I find this kind of logic depressing. It’s as if to say that if your mother happens to be a poor, barely literate ghetto-dweller you must abandon her and cleave to the English missionary with her glowing white skin and impeccable English. Surely it’s not an either/ or game. Most people would agree that this was outrageous yet many of the same people would find nothing wrong with denigrating Patwa and banning it from official spaces as if it’s impossible to know and love Jamaican and also become fluent in English! The worst part is that for many children for whom Patwa is the only language available literacy becomes inaccessible because you have to know English to study any subject at school.  In fact the way some people react to the idea that Patwa ought to be recognized as a language and used as a medium of instruction in schools you’d think that to promote or accept Creole is to diss English!

To the World from Jamaica! Patwa Power Bolts the Stables
In Asafa Powell, Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremonies, Creole, Dancehall music, Jacques Rogge, Jamaican athletics, Patois, Portia Simpson-Miller, Shelley Ann Fraser, TVJ, Usain Bolt, Waterhouse on August 23, 2008 at 6:44 pm


Yes, we can…be worldbeaters! That’s the message from Jamaica’s relentlessly resilient and resourceful underclass who have proven yet again their ability to dominate global competition in the arenas where their lack of English doesn’t hold them back. This is Patwa power (patois or creole, the much reviled and disdained oral language spoken by the majority of Jamaicans) at its most potent: a lithe and flexible force–honed by adversity–flaunting its mastery of the universe of athletics.

To underscore its point Patwa hurled its most powerful lightning bolt at distant Beijing. Named Usain, this young and irrepressible son of Jamaican soil then re-inscribed forever the significance of the word Bolt. Both English-speaking and Patwa-speaking Jamaicans united in celebrating Usain Bolt’s extraordinary exploits (Gold and world records in Men’s 100m, 200m and the 4×100) and those of the nimble, determined young Jamaican team accompanying him. Over the two weeks of the 29th Olympiad they enthralled global audiences over and over again with their worldbeating skills.

I was delighted to read the article on DeGraff in the Boston Globe because when the linguists at UWI articulate identical views as his they come in for torrents of abuse from members of the public. Well, DeGraff, who’s at the top of his game–you don’t get to be an MIT professor if you don’t know your shit–has vindicated them. The article goes on to outline how Creole has been viewed in Haiti, historically and currently. What is striking is how eerily identical the language situation in Haiti seems to the one here in Jamaica:

Haiti’s 1804 slave revolt made it the world’s first independent black republic, but French remained the official language, and persisted as the language of the island’s land-owning, well-educated elite. Today, Creole and French are both designated official languages of Haiti, but they are nowhere near equal in status. All government business is conducted in French, including all court proceedings and records of parliamentary debate. French is also the language of all formal documents, like deeds, medical records, and building permits. Road signs are written in French. So are the names of most public buildings. The two main newspapers in the country, Le Nouvelliste and Le Matin, are primarily in French, as is Le Moniteur, which publishes all new laws and government decrees. The cumulative effect is that Haitian society is sharply and conspicuously divided between the minority of people who can meaningfully participate in the official, French-driven world around them, and the majority, who can’t.

There is an “ideology of disrespect and degradation” surrounding Creole, according to Arthur Spears, a professor at the City University of New York, who coedited a recent volume of essays on Haitian Creole. And it can be seen not just among members of the Haitian elite but the masses, as well. “It’s internalized oppression,” Spears said. “They’ve always heard that the way to succeed is to know French. The people who are important in society know and speak French. It’s all about French if you want your child to do better than you did.”

Given all that, it’s not hard to see why parents in Haiti would generally expect and insist that school be conducted in French. But when it comes to what actually happens in Haitian classrooms–total and sudden immersion in French, even if it means rote, singsong memorization–that whole idea breaks down. The kids end up missing out on math, science, history, and literature. In most cases they don’t end up learning to read or write at all. And it’s not just because they can’t understand their teachers. In the tiny village schools that dot the island, many of the teachers aren’t actually fluent in French themselves.

“Often what you find is that mistakes are being introduced by the teachers who don’t know French well,” DeGraff says. “And the kids, as they copy what they see on the board, because they don’t understand what they’re copying, they introduce further mistakes.”

The alternative–the future that DeGraff and his allies imagine for Haitian education–is to teach kids to be literate in Creole first, building up their basic knowledge in the language they know. They can then learn French later, as a foreign language. That vision is driven in part by long-accepted research from applied linguistics and education theory, which shows that children have a far easier time first becoming literate in the language they speak.

Jamaican linguists are recommending the very same thing. Can we now stop abusing them and start listening instead?

Cake Soap and Creole: The Bleaching of the Nation…

The problem of skin bleaching in Jamaica is discussed and linked to the problem of language, and the privileging of English over Creole.

Khani LTD Edition # 1_21inx21in_ mixed mediaonpaper_2008 by Ebony G. Patterson

All of a sudden the problem of skin bleaching is in the spotlight and we have top DJ Vybz Kartel to thank for it. As I mentioned in an earlier post my favourite Christmas present was a pack of his infamous ‘cake soap’ I received, complete with personal autograph. VK as we’ll call him for short, has recently attracted attention with his complexion suddenly appearing several shades lighter than it used to be, the better he says, to show off his numerous tattoos. The melanin reduction is attributed to the said cake soap which is normally used to whiten clothes in the wash.

It just goes to show you how influential popular music is; young Ebony Patterson has been highlighting the skin bleaching problem here for years with her series of innovative artworks but hardly anyone outside the artworld paid much attention. Then along comes VK, the Darth Vader of Jamaican music (except that he doesn’t want to be dark any longer), with his cake soap and no one can talk of anything else.

Jamaica’s voluble moral majority has rushed to condemn VK claiming that he is encouraging impressionable youngsters to imitate him. What has upset many is that the DJ is unrepentant and even playful about lightening his skin colour, refusing to take the matter seriously and countering that it’s no different from white people wanting to tan themselves. Numerous musicians have rushed forth with anti-bleaching, love-my black-skin-songs but in a way all these knee-jerk responses are just as superficial as the act of bleaching itself, which only changes what is visible without attacking the underlying structural problems that make people bleach in the first place. Historian Elsa Goveia put her finger on it several decades ago when she said the structuring principle of Caribbean societies is “the belief that the blacker you are the more inferior you are and the whiter you are the more superior you are.”

Until this reality changes people are going to think that the best way to advance in such societies is to lighten your skin colour. People can fulminate all they want and express litres of outrage, it will make no difference.

To me bleaching your skin is fundamentally no different from deciding that Creole /Patwa , if that is your mother tongue, is so lowly and contemptible linguistically that it is not worthy of being spoken or allowed in schools.  Edouard Glissant described how in Martinique it was common to see “In beautiful rounded white letters on a clean blackboard at the reopening of school: it is forbidden to speak Creole in class or on the playground.” And Jamaica is no different.

The logic is the same: English/French/Spanish is the language of universal currency so our children must only learn English and must actively be discouraged from speaking Jamaican or Patwa, the versatile, volatile language of the streets here that for many is their native tongue. Similarly skin bleachers reason that since white/light skin is almost universally valued higher than darker skin tones, they must use any means necessary to acquire it.

I find this kind of logic depressing. It’s as if to say that if your mother happens to be a poor, barely literate ghetto-dweller you must abandon her and cleave to the English missionary with her glowing white skin and impeccable English. Surely it’s not an either/ or game. Most people would agree that this was outrageous yet many of the same people would find nothing wrong with denigrating Patwa and banning it from official spaces as if it’s impossible to know and love Jamaican and also become fluent in English! The worst part is that for many children for whom Patwa is the only language available literacy becomes inaccessible because you have to know English to study any subject at school.  In fact the way some people react to the idea that Patwa ought to be recognized as a language and used as a medium of instruction in schools you’d think that to promote or accept Creole is to diss English!

And if you think that’s bad read Carolyn Cooper’s blogpost where she describes the absurd system of ‘justice’ in Jamaica which is dispensed in impeccable English to Patwa-speakers regardless of whether they understand the language or not!

One morning, as I waited 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.

The defendant was told that the case was going to be sent to a mediator who would discuss exactly how much rent the defendant 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 translate her comments 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.”

To come back to skin bleaching I had to laugh when I heard someone curling their lip in disdain at Kartel because this person happens to be someone with straightened hair and a very white affect, who never speaks Patwa or genuflects to the African origins proclaimed by her skin colour. What else is that but bleaching? And not just bleaching the superficial skin you were born with but the very culture that is also part of your heritage.

It’s pointless to get our knickers in a knot over Kartel’s latest antics. As a tweeter I know said “People are going to have to be mature enough to think for themselves. If the likes of Kartel can lead them astray then they already lost.”

I think Vybz Kartel is the very embodiment of the contradictions that bedevil Jamaican society and we should be grateful to him for foregrounding this disfiguring practice. But we need to go beyond that and deal with the fundamental problem that causes people to bleach their skins to begin with: the social value placed on lighter skin colour. Until that is addressed the bleaching agent industry will continue to flourish here and everywhere else that puts a premium on ‘fair’ skin (In the country of my birth pale skin is so prized that someone of my complexion could never play a starring role in Bollywood) .

It’s not a moment too soon for The International Conference on Language Rights and Policy in the Creole-Speaking Caribbean taking place in Kingston tomorrow and day after. Below is a disturbing video on a family of skin bleachers in downtown Kingston.