Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.







**You may contact me by e-mail at livinginbarbados[at]gmail[dot]com**

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Lawd, mi chile! Whappen tu Jamayka?

Jamaica is building up a good head of froth over the prospect of a project by the Bible Society of the West Indies to translate The Bible into Patois and publish it. Already, I feel conflicted. Should I write every sentence in standard English and then the equivalent in Patois? Is "Patois" a proper noun needing to be capitalized or can I write it with a small p? That's another issue, but it could also lead to a lot of froth. Now, it may not be my choice as the best use of money, but do I fear for my country's linguistic balance as a result of this?

As I write, Jamaica's PM, has added his voice to the discussion (see report in The Gleaner). I think the point is that he is the leader of the country rather than a linguistics expert so we tend to hang on his words. He contends that "the [education] system had failed to successfully impart to society the accepted language." By "accepted" he means English as the official language. Mr.Golding asked "if there's any other country that will understand what we're saying," and "How is Patois going to help them [students] understand and learn the sciences, how is it going to help us to do better in mathematics?" Some obvious answers are that English has to fight for its place alongside Patois in the mouths of every Jamaican, even Mr. Golding's, though in Parliament he manages to get the balance in favour of standard English. I'm not sure how things go when he is at home or cracking dominoes. Most Jamaicans understand Patois as it is spoken; only those with a certain literary grasp will be able to understand it in its written form, so it's not clear if the translated Bible's written word will do much to supplant either spoken or written English. If information is imparted in that form so that it is understandable to the majority of the population I would think that would be a good thing.

It's not the same issue as in the USA with Spanish supplanting English; Spanish has taken on significance as a result of a large influx of Spanish speakers and their lingusitic importance can and does push English to the side in some areas. Having bilingual signs up in Florida acknowledges the importance of both languages; English is still the official language but Spanish is known to be widely spoken, read, written and understood. I presume that Jamaica's politicians who use as much labrish as they can when on the stump trying to get votes do so because they feel they will be better understood and seen as "one o di people". I would love to see and hear them trotting around the garrisons with megaphones blaring out messages in the Queen's English.

Miss Louise Bennett-Coverly did an amazing thing when she raised Jamaican Patois to a higher level by writing in, performing in, and generally trying to elevate the use of Patois. Now she was no woman without a good education, and the country has lauded her with its highest honours for her poetic and other achievements. Her poetry and folklore renditions--
most notably "Jamaica Labrish" (published in 1966)--are famous in many countries. When she wrote "Colonization in Reverse" in the mid-1960s, every Jamaican could understand perfectly what she was writing about; but maybe the British were at a loss:

"Wat a joyful news, Miss Mattie, I feel like me heart gwine burs
Jamaica people colonizin Englan in reverse.

By de hundred, by de tousan
From country and from town,
By de ship-load, by de plane-load
Jamaica is Englan boun.

Dem a pour out a Jamaica
Everybody future plan
Is fe get a big-time job
An settle in de mother lan.

What a islan! What a people!
Man an woman, old an young
Jus a pack dem bag an baggage
An tun history upside dung!

Some people doan like travel
But fe show dem loyalty
Dem all a open up cheap-fare-
To-Englan agency.

An week by week dem shippin off
Dem countryman like fire,
Fe immigrate an populate
De seat a de Empire.

Oonoo see how life is funny,
Oonoo see de tunabout?
Jamaica live fe box bread
Out a English people mout'.

For wen dem ketch a Englan,
An start play dem different role,
Some will settle down to work
An some will settle fe de dole.

Jane say de dole is not too bad
Because dey payin she
Two pounds a week fe seek a job
Dat suit her dignity.

Me say Jane will never fine work
At de rate how she dah look,
For all day she stay pon Aunt Fan couch
An read love-story book.

Wat a devilment a Englan!
Dem face war an brave de worse,
But me wonderin how dem gwine stan
Colonizin in reverse."

Listen to her comments on the issue:

Listen to then try to translate the short episode from
"Oliver". Imagine one of Jamaica's favourite comedians speaking in standard English; it would be much improved (not):

Yet, some 40 years on, we have become very confused and insecure about how we speak and elevating this from the ground. Most countries do all they can to put out material in a form that most of the national people can understand. If your people speak one of the world's many minority languages--and let me simplify and call that everything other than English, French, Arabic, one of the Chinese or Indian languages, Spanish, German, or Portuguese--what do you do? You often try to give them the chance to be better understood by teaching one of the more popular languages. So, in Finland, Latvia or Indonesia, you may be taught English to help you be understood abroad or in the world of business and politics. You get taught in Finnish or Latvian, and you end up as a pretty brilliant person speaking your national tongue. Duh. It's been easier to understand. At home you speak Finnish or whatever. I'm sure the Finns are quaking now that English will overtake their national tongue when all those English language pop songs are aired on the radios and TV. The concerns in Jamaica are a bit like the French fears for their language in the face of everything else, even the abbreviated form of communication in text messages. We should suggest to President Sarkozy that he ban the translation of anything into English, or one of the other European languages. Bway! We love run from reality.

It's not really an argument to say that Patois is not an official language. That could be changed in the stroke of an administrator's pen. It's interesting to look at the approach of The Seychelles (population about 80,000). Their official languages are French, English, and Seychellois Creole (a patois). I remember visiting those islands a few years ago and being enthralled by the fact that news broadcasts, newspapers and official documents were in one of the official languages or creole. One could look at another example off the coast of Africa, Madagascar (population about 20 million). Amongst the world's true minority languages (spoken in just one country) you have to include Malagasy (pronounced mal-gash). The country is a former French colony and French is spoken among the educated population of this former French colony. Malagasy was named the national language in the early 1990s, and in a change to the Constitution English, French, and Malagasy were named "official" languages. When I had to work in Madagascar, I had to endure meetings in Malagasy and then hope for a translation into French. It often did not come. The documents I had to work with were in Malagasy and it took me hours longer to do my work if I had no French or English translation. But, the view of the Malagasy was that this is what we speak and understand, so tough, buddy. In an international arena, officials speak French or whatever international language they can. I could add to the mix all the languages that exist in Africa. Yes, French was the official language in Guinea, where I was posted for three years, but most dialogue between officials was in one of three national languages (Peuhl, Malinke, or Sousou), spoken by about 80 percent of the population. They wrote and spoke French for the benefit of foreigners and so it was for almost all the population.

So, yes, we need to have command of an international language to help us understand, and get ourselves better understood in, the larger world, but within our borders we need to have the broadest understanding possible by the majority of our country people. That's why when it was released Jimmy Cliff's film "The Harder They Come" needed English subtitles; not for Jamaicans but for the rest of the English-speaking world. Material expressed in the national language is better for that; that's the full and true expression for most people, whatever we may want to call the language of origin. Try to read "Jamaican Song and Story" in standard English, or try to read one of the hundreds of Leandro Urban's cartoons or an Anthony Winkler book in standard English; they lose their Jamaican-ness.

I studied English for a long time and when I read and hear passages from The Bible I encounter many elements that are impenetrable to someone with a better-than-average understanding of English, even in the modernized versions; some sections could be in Chaucerian Olde English for all I know. Maybe the first project should be to translate The Bible into clear English, the
Publish Postn do the patois version. But bringing the words of the good book nearer to those Jamaicans who wish to really understand it may merit translating it into Patois.

In the same way that we Jamaicans have created a musical and dance form in reggae that expresses us, and are not bound to sing and dance like our one-time colonizers, let us celebrate that we speak and express ourselves in a particular way and maybe should stand by that proudly rather than looking to grind it into the dirt.

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