Making Patois an Official Language of Jamaica


by Sulan Bailey, United World College Maastricht
7th February, 2020


Jamaica is a small island in the Caribbean that was colonized by the British from the late 1600s to 1962. When the British brought Africans through the devasting Middle Passage to work on plantations in Jamaica, the enslaved people spoke a completely different language from that of their captors but they understood that crack of a whip and the clanking of their chains and for some time that was enough to know what they were being forced to do. As the years of captivity toiled on, the enslaved Africans began to associate English words with their apparent meanings and did their best to imitate their British rulers, in order to communicate with then. Blending their captors’ English and their native African languages, my ancestors unwittingly created Jamaican Patois (JP), a language born out of contact.
a
Over generations, JP has evolved rapidly, the language has taken on its own grammar, mechanics and vocabulary. Its words, along with our flat way of speaking, has rendered Jamaican accents almost instantly recognizable by many across the world, especially those familiar with the work of Jamaican-born reggae and dancehall artists such as Bob Marley, Sean Paul or, more recently, Koffee. As such, it is a shock to many non-Caribbean people that Jamaican Patois isn’t actually an official language in Jamaica. In fact, the only official language in Jamaica, though it is surrounded by Spanish-speaking neighbouring islands, is English.
a
Onlookers would be further confused to learn that the use of Patois has been viewed as a sign of a lack of education by many Jamaicans for as long as most Jamaicans can remember. Even after slavery was abolished in 1834 and Jamaica gained its independence from colonial rule in 1962, the wealthier (and fairer-skinned) Jamaicans who had access to higher levels and quality of education spoke Standard English while poor Jamaicans mostly spoke Patois. Patois’ reputation was that of the poor, uneducated and black man’s language: “broken English”. Standard English was desirable and to be used exclusively in schools and places of business. Though the vast majority of Jamaicans speak and understand Patois at some level, people would even be denied service in financial institutions if they didn’t speak the Queen’s English.
a
For years, musicians, poets and other cultural influencers have used their respective media to legitimize Patois by cementing it to Jamaican culture. Louise Bennett-Coverley, a Jamaican poet and household name, even reasoned in one of her most famous spoken word pieces that Patois was derived from English similarly to the way English was derived from Latin. Through the work of Louise Bennett and other pioneers, JP has become much more widely accepted throughout the country as a cornerstone of our heritage and is generally less frowned upon in 2019 than it was in 1962. Last month, the Jamaican Language Unit of Jamaica’s biggest university finally submitted a petition to the government to make “Jamaican” an official language. As someone who values all things of Jamaican culture quite highly, it would be a blatant lie to deny that I have waited years for this. It is a move I have anticipated as I have seen the attitude of Jamaicans young and old become more appreciative of a language that I consider uniquely our own. That is why I surprised myself when I DISAGREED that the government should make JP an official language, immediately after reading the petition.
a
As I read the petition, which was written in both in English and JP (which they proposed now simply be called “Jamaican”), it became apparent that making Patois an official language will do more harm than good. The main problem revealed itself as I struggled through the “Patois” version of the petition. I had trouble trying to figure out what Patois words the writers of the petition were trying to say because of their spelling. Since Patois has only ever been an oral language, there is no official spelling of any of its words. As such, spelling is up to the writer’s interpretation of which letters best make the sounds they want to convey. This made me realize that in order to make Patois official, the language would have to be standardized. The main issue with standardization is that Patois differs somewhat in vocabulary and grammar from region to region throughout the country. Jamaicans that live in the capital city, Kingston, generally have more contact with American and British media and, as such, Patois spoken in Kingston and surrounding areas sounded much more similar to traditional English than Patois spoken in rural areas. Chances are that standardization would favour Kingstonian Patois as it will be standardized by language professors from the local university. Standardizing patois so that it resembles how it is spoken in one part of Jamaica would disenfranchise hundreds of thousands that have always spoken it differently.

a
A convincing argument for making Patois an official language is that Patois is the true first language and the thinking language of many Jamaicans. As such, if Patois was made an official language and school lessons taught in the thinking language of the students, the students would learn better. As persuasive as this point seems, it simply is not legitimate. Firstly, it is my experience and that of many other students across the island that teachers often teach in Patois already, though it has not achieved official language status. Secondly, if Patois is standardized, it will likely be very different from the language from that which is the “thinking language” of Jamaicans, which undermines the entire line of reasoning.
a
Let me be clear. I believe that those petitioning to make JP an official language are well-intentioned. Legitimizing Patois, in theory, would eliminate particular social issues that have influenced Jamaican history and heritage for many years. However, in practice, making Patois an official language could not completely put these problems to rest as the practice of devaluing Patois and its speakers is just a symptom of the underlying issue of classism in Jamaican society. Making the language official won’t change the fact that a customer in a place of business who speaks standard English will be serviced more quickly and with more respect than one who speaks Patois. It won’t shield security guards or construction workers from the upturned noses of wealthier citizens as they pass them on the streets. Nor will it stop the snickers of high schoolers when a presenter speaks in Patois rather than in English. Instead, on top of the elitism of English in Jamaica, the implementation of the petition will create an elite language and call it Jamaican, further alienating almost two million natives of the island from their own language. Ultimately, I fear that treating this symptom will only make the problem worse.

180 views