"H'emphasise your h'aitches, you h'ignorant h'ass!"
Most Jamaicans, including the ordinary man in the street, the lawyer, teacher, doctor, politician, journalist, bank manager, et al, have problems of one kind or another using the official language of the country dubbed Standard English or the Queen's English.
The current debate surrounding the proposed "officialising" of the Jamaican patois (patwa) is therefore most timely, methinks, because as we celebrate 50 years of political independence we ought to come to terms with the fact for the majority of Jamaicans, Jamaican or patois is indeed the language of choice and ease. And it is no secret that most teachers of English have a serious problem teaching this most necessary subject as the students' first language. The argument that patois should be declared Jamaica's first language should be taken more seriously by even the most prudish among us, if Jamaicans are to truly develop self-esteem as well as self-actualisation.
As someone who attends a great deal of functions, I often cringe in pain or collapse into quiet laughter as I listen to the H'English language being "massacrawed". Some time ago, a certain man, in addressing his audience at a banquet began by saying, "Madame Chairwoman, extinguished guesses, lady and gentlemans." The prime-time evening newscasts on both TVJ and CVM are replete with the most hilarious examples of the misuse of the English language. And it is not only those ranting and raving street demonstrators who, when placed before the cameras, set about to tell it like it is in the most colourful patois. The newsreaders are also guilty of this "crime".
For most Jamaican children, the first words that they become accustomed to are not from Standard English, but patois. Unfortunately, we still as a nation remain uncomfortable with the use of patois and frequently refer to such utterances as "speaking badly". In the same way that the average Jamaican has to cope with "bad hair" and feels inferior in terms of his or her skin colour, to speak patois is to automatically make him or her a second-class citizen. It is my belief, therefore, that one way of increasing the level of self-worth of our fellow citizens is to make patois acceptable and not looked down upon.
One of the bittersweet aspects of our Jamaican culture is that some of our most successful sons and daughters at the national and international levels, especially in the areas of sports and entertainment, speak patois as their first language. But it can be so embarrassing and pathetic listening to them "twanging" when they are being interviewed. Bob Marley, perhaps the most revered Jamaican, never attempted to speak the Queen's English. One can recall that memorable interview he did with the late broadcaster Neville Willoughby in which he expounded his philosophy and thinking in Jamaican patois without any qualms or apology. The world's fastest man, our own Usain Bolt, is a turn-off when he attempts to "twang" and I, for one, look forward to the day when he will just relax and speak like the rest us without having to feel compromised or less of a person.
If I say, "Mi naw go over deh," that's patois. "I am not going over there," that's Standard English. If I on the other hand wish to "speakie-spokie" then I would say in the most horrible English: "I is not going h'over dere!" Did you know that Jamaicans who have never travelled abroad, on return from the airport after seeing off some relatives or friends start to "twang"? Yes, mi dear, a so mi seh." How can any Jamaican comfortably say, "It is so nice here" as against "A yah so nice"? Being a proud Jamaican, how could I say, "Nowhere is better than here at home" as against "Nuh weh nuh betta dan yaad"? Gimme a break!
Even as we celebrate Louise Bennett-Coverley, isn't it ironic that we as a people still see patois as talking bad? Indeed, Miss Lou must be turning in her grave. English is a thinking business and most Jamaicans think in patois. It is therefore most logical that in the teaching of English, teachers should first of all use patois as the main medium in the same way that we learn Spanish or French. Too many Jamaicans suffer from an inferiority complex because of their inability to express themselves in proper English. Yes, all Jamaicans should master the English language but at the same time we must come to terms with the reality that Jamaican or patois is most definitely our first language. A so mi seh!
Lloyd B Smith is a member of parliament and deputy speaker of the House of Representatives. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the People's National Party or the Government of Jamaica.