Careers & Education

'There's money in chatting patois'

BY LUKE DOUGLAS Career & Education senior reporter douglasl@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, September 23, 2012    

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IT is the view of many that the Jamaican patois is of little use outside of Jamaica, and that the learning of English, which is the language of international business, law and science, should emphasised.

But while not disputing the urgent need for more Jamaicans to become competent in the use of the English language, a number of persons are busy improving their economic status, largely because of their proficiency to 'chat patois'.

Ethnomusicologist and adjunct lecturer at the University of the West Indies Dr Dennis Howard says the cultural industries are among Jamaica's highest foreign exchange earners and the Jamaican language features heavily in them -- whether it be music, film, theatre, food, and fashion.

"Phrases like 'yeah man' are as synonymous to Jamaica as Bob Marley. The dialect is increasingly being viewed as cool in cosmopolitan circles internationally," Howard said in his contribution at a public forum, titled 'Celebrating the Jamaican language', at the Holy Cross Church in St Andrew last month.

He noted that in parts of Africa, such as Ghana, patois is so popular that dozens of local artistes have been imitating the Jamaican language.

"I thought they were Jamaican because they had everything down in terms of the dancehall style," Howard said of a recent visit to Ghana.

The story is the same in St Vincent where local artistes have copied everything "down to the bad words".

Others using the Jamaican patois to gain popularity include Japanese sound system selectors who are fluent in Jamaican patois, which they use to help win sound clashes; and UK actor Sasha Baron Cohen who shot to fame as the character Ali G, a patois-speaking comedian/commentator, and who has won numerous awards as a result.

Howard believes that patois should be taught formally in schools "so we can be more effective in speaking and communicating in both our languages" and not "lose an important element in marketing our cultural artefacts and products".

Patwa Apparel is a clothing brand founded in 2007, which utilises Jamaican expressions on the front with an English translation on the back.

Chief Executive Officer Heneka Watkis-Porter said Brand Jamaica and its language is very powerful and there is a market for products using patois all over the world.

"Everyone who comes in contact with Patwa, the brand, falls in love with it and wants a piece of it," said Watkis-Porter, who has travelled extensively in Europe with entertainers and other cultural artists.

"Our language is marketable. Let's use what we have; don't let anyone come and validate us," she added.

Dr Andre Haughton of UWI's Department of Economics concurred with the other presenters, noting that when he was pursuing his PhD at the University of Essex in the United Kingdom in 2007, everyone he met wanted to come to Jamaica because they were fascinated to hear him speak.

"When people see us as Jamaicans, they see us as a unique set of people, and uniqueness comes in the culture, in tourism. It's tied up with the music also, and international negotiations," he said.

Haughton also suggested that the Jamaican economy may be negatively affected because competent persons may not be selected for employment because of their inability to speak English properly.

"In Jamaica, we perceive that whenever you use the English language you're smarter, and when you chat patois, 'yuh nuh really undastan' wha' a gwaan'. We see where this can have drawback effects on the development of the country because the more capable people are not put in positions to express themselves," he said.

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