Letters to the Editor

A word of caution on patois usage

Tuesday, August 28, 2012    

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Dear Editor,

Formalising Jamaican patois as a language is extremely important from a cultural perspective. However, caution must be given to the degree in which it is implemented as a scholarly exercise. For one, the chance of patois expanding beyond our shores and becoming a choice language for regional or international trade, commerce and communication is nil. And so this reality eternally limits its utility to native Jamaicans and to those who might be transported by the grace and elegance of our mother tongue.

Languages gain widespread acceptance through dominance and conquest achieved by military and economic might. These two forces are the main conduits through which languages become global means of communication. Jamaica has neither military nor economic might, and quite possibly, will never come close to having those capacities. This observation is honest, given the pace at which we are growing economically. For all the goods and services Jamaica produces yearly, it has been in economic deficit for 44 of the 50 years since our Independence as a nation. With such a record, one can unequivocally conclude that we are not following in the footsteps of the Romans or the British in indelibly stamping our culture at the four corners of the earth any time soon.

However, to the degree that our music, athletes, and tourism become internationally accepted, equally it will pave the way for recognition and use of our language by others, thus making it more popular. But what are the chances that those assets will continuously maintain their prominence, and consequentially serve as the conveyance for the introduction of the language to other nations? Additionally, if these cultural values remain commercially viable for the foreseeable future, then to what degree will they cause the language to gain acceptability? Will the language gain worldwide or even regional acceptance justifying teaching it within an academic context? Probably not! I believe the answer does not extend beyond the intriguing appeal of the language, which manifests mainly from it being a syncopated version of the English language with added African influences.

And so, it is with this in mind that I caution the approach in teaching patois, as it could have unintended consequences in students seeking a fundamental grasp of the bastard language English that is so critically important for navigating matters essential to life both at home and abroad. The danger of this unintended consequence is real, given the proximity of English to our many different versions of patois, including the Rastafarians’ – which is unique. This cornucopia of exotic tongues could very well stage our re-enactment of the incident at the Tower of Babel, or realistically, morph us into a nation of bumbling babblers.

C Anderson






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