The Jamaican language, not Jamaican ‘patois’

By Pat Watson Wednesday January 29 2014 in Opinion
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‘Oh, you’re Jamaican? Could you say something in Jamaican?’


Who from that little country having traveled out into the bigger world hasn’t come across someone making that request? Sometimes it feels like being asked to perform some kind of sideshow act. Do people who speak English or French ever find themselves subjected to this kind of zoological peering into their language?


Here then a sample from dancehall duo Twin of Twins: “Jah know, Tessanne, mi like da talk deh weh yuh mek/ You know how long mi a talk and dem gwaan like dem figet/ Anytime wi talk dem seh a disrespect/ So mi ah go mek yuh translate if a dat it ah go tek…”


There is so much that could be said about the latest installment of the reality show, ‘Toronto’s Crack-smoking, Drunk-driving Mayor’, but my argument with the release of the latest videotaped episode is not with the, by now, predictable Ford behaviour. Rather it is with the various ways in which the Jamaican accent he affected and the vocabulary he used was parsed in the media, more specifically, the use of the term ‘patois’ to refer to the Jamaican language. The reference has a history as a pejorative and places the Jamaican language speaker in a social context that speaks of the lesser. Other languages born out of the Creole era are given similar connotation.


On the other hand, so many Jamaicans and Jamaican artists in particular revere Miss Lou, the late Louise Bennett-Coverley who was hailed as Jamaica’s cultural ambassador. She told the world in her extensive body of work that the Jamaican language has legitimacy.


Miss Lou went so far as to remind us that the language that would be looked up to as currency for social acceptability, “the Queen’s English”, adopted vocabulary from Latin as well as having Germanic origin. Who would consider aspects of English then as Latin patios?


The assignment of Jamaican as a substrate language comes from a people’s reworking of English. English follows Germanic syntax overlaid with awkward accommodations of Latin grammar. Jamaican is a hybrid that begins with English at the time of the transatlantic enslavement industry combined with African language syntax, grammar accommodations and vocabulary. So much of what left Africa, in particular the West Coast of Africa, resides in the Jamaican vocabulary today. And, adding to the class distinction that marked the denigration of the language, up to a certain point in the 1970s at least, the words that were markedly African were considered the most down-market.


Words like nyam (eat), unnu (you) and duppy (ghost) and pronunciation patterns such as replacing “t sounds with ‘k’ (bokkle, likkle), eliminating the ‘s’ sound from some words that begin with ‘st’ – ‘trong, ‘traight, adding an extra vowel sound – s-u-mall, S-i-mith, are indications of the hybrid that is today’s Jamaican.


Jamaican also holds its own with identifiable grammar patterns. English will use the verb ‘be’ along with “-ing” at the end of the main verbs to explain future actions whereas Jamaican will use ‘a’. In that sense, the Jamaican version of “I’m going to”, translates to “mi a go”. Plural forms would take the word ‘them/dem’, as in the book them/dem.


Language and sound communication is a characteristic of a broad range of life forms. Given the complexity of the human brain, and uniqueness of our vocal range, our species has taken it to a level that is demonstrably singular.


But beyond that, we have also placed language along a spectrum of social hierarchy. Thus, I refuse any attempt from any colonialized perspective to make the Jamaican language into another anthropological spectacle, to denigrate or otherwise objectify this language legacy, regardless of the source.


One more thing: there just isn’t enough room here to get into the scatological references Ford chose to pull from his bag of cultural tourism. That will have to wait for another day.

A note on the dead of winter…


Some of us have been fed up with winter since it first hit the region in October last year. Wishing for summer doesn’t make it any better when recalling seemingly endless days of merciless humidity, stagnant air and plus-30 degrees Celsius that came with summer 2013. What then to do about climate change?

Pat Watson is the author of the e-book In Through A Coloured Lens. Twitter@patprose.

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