Can anything good come out of Nazareth?

Grace Virtue

Saturday, September 15, 2012    

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In the fables I read as a child, those delightful little stories with a profound moral contained therein, things were never always what they seemed.

Aesop, most beloved author of these tales, was his own best example. He was a slave, described as a dwarf, deformed, and ugly. His fables date back to the 5th century; they live on today.

In Christendom, Jesus, the Messiah, came out of Nazareth, a picturesque village in Palestine with a reputation for depravity and evil, not unlike Jamaica.

"Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Phillip, a would-be disciple asked sceptically.

Shouldn't the Messiah come out of Jerusalem, the big city with elegantly robed priests and magnificent temples? was the unasked question.

Knowing Nazareth's reputation, Phillip let his prejudice show. When he opened his mind, he found the Saviour of the world.

In Jamaica, superstars come from little rural villages with bad roads and no running water, and from the ghettoes of Kingston.

Shouldn't they come from uptown? Shouldn't they be even just a little pretentious? And wouldn't glory be more glorious if the women didn't speak of pain and struggle and poverty and shanty towns; of

machete-wielding mothers and reprobate men stalking their virginity?

Wouldn't it be "proper", particularly in London, if they had spoken English - made clear our connections to our former colonial masters - rather than use the language of their slave ancestors?

Surely nothing good has or can ever come out of slavery? Not our indomitable spirit - that burning desire to survive and triumph, no matter what. Not art, music, or literature, and certainly not a language of any intrinsic value. Not patois, one of our greatest unifying forces, and the singular most important marker of our national identity?

Hail to Yohan Blake who unapologetically told the NBC reporter: "Bwoy, you waa si de relay ago dread enuh... wid me an' Usain... di two fassest man inna de world inna de same race. It a go dread. Das all mi cyah sey." Or something like that.

In the global space in which Jamaica is trying so desperately to fit, even at the expense of our rich cultural identity, the best thing we have going for us, empiricism is the acceptable epistemiology.

It should not be difficult, therefore, to determine what our national language is - since some people are confused. As one blogger said, "Stand on any street corner in Jamaica for five minutes. Listen and tell me what language you hear."

Better yet, go anywhere in Jamaica - anytime. Listen to the mothers urging their little girls on as they run to catch the bus, the taxi men, the fisher folk, the police, the firemen, the market women, the farmers, children coming from school, the tellers outside the banks, the secretaries away from their desks, the nurses heading for the next shift .

Go inside the hospitals, inside the patty shops at lunchtime, inside the theatres and the recording studios.

Cut off somebody in traffic.

Listen to the soul of Jamaica.

What do you hear?

With the will of the people in mind, the discourse on patois must be led, and policies directed by people who understand language at the technical, social and political levels; the relationship between languages, cultures and identities and the interplay with issues of power, empowerment, and disempowerment.

It is fundamentally disempowering, for example, and therefore morally reprehensible, for a society to tell any of its people, children most of all, that something is wrong with the only language they know - the only tool of communication they have. For this reason, it is imperative that policy resolution be immediate and based on something other than people's prejudices.

Interestingly, while suggestions are being made about banning patois in public, outside of the United Kingdom, Gibraltar, a British territory, is the only European country with English as its official language.

The official languages of Belgium are Dutch and French; Italy, Italian; Hungary, Hungarian; Lithuania, Lithuanian; Luxembourg, Luxembourgish; the Netherlands, Dutch; Germany, German.

As long as France exists, French will be its official language, and in Wales, the Welsh Language Act of 1993 and 1998, provides for Welsh and English to be treated equally in the public sector, "as far as is reasonable and practicable".

Do these and other countries or groups not understand the value of English? Yes, but they value more their own cultures and the institutions essential to their survival, and to their national identity - critical in a confusing global space.

Who, for example, would tell the Jews not to teach or encourage their children to speak Hebrew, since only about 10 million people out of almost seven billion in the world speak it?

Who would tell the Vatican City to abandon Latin?

Who are those who insist that a language birthed in Jamaica is illegitimate?


Grace Virtue, PhD, is a public affairs expert and independent scholar based in Washington DC.



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