Unboxing the Jamaican language
Patois should not be pigeonholed to informal use.

Dear Editor,

I write in response to Professor Carolyn Cooper's article entitled 'Emancipating the Jamaican language lickle-lickle' published in The Gleaner on August 7.

As usual, her argument is on point. In addition to what the learned professor has highlighted, I think that one of the reasons people tend to laugh and appear not to take the Jamaican creole as a serious language of communication in formal settings lies primarily in how we Jamaicans have been socialised.

Fundamentally speaking, the bastardised version of the so-called standard English, which is the creole, is the main medium of parents' communication to children, especially in informal settings like the home. Patois, the common vernacular of the masses, is therefore accepted as normal and usually not ridiculed in this primary institution. In contrast to this fact though, other agents of socialisation, such as the education system and the Church, which are seen as formal settings, emphasise the use of standard English.

Indeed, while this kind of linguistic dichotomy is now being seen as dysfunctional to our peoples' social and economic progress, as in the now debate over the accepted language of commerce, researchers have proven otherwise. Accordingly, their investigations have shown that inherent to the cultural identity of the broader Caribbean region is the centrality of a bilingual and multilingual phonological structure, which is undeniably functional to the daily spoken language usage of all classes of people in the region.

As a result, early icons, like Louise Bennett and Ranny Williams, who were skilled cultural linguist, in trying to present their poetry and drama works as serious academic and educational representations of Jamaican cultural sensibilities, captured the attention and imagination of their audience by provoking them into much laughter and excitement during their many performances. Consequently, as Miss Lou's poems were taught to thousands of students in the school system over the years, it would appear that not much effort was made by teachers to put a serious spin to the presentation of her work. Instead, many students have been socialised to interpret the seriousness of these award-winning poems as nothing more than fables to laugh at instead of being analytical, serious, and academical in how they are presented.

Importantly, though, it was only after The University of the West Indies started teaching West Indian poetry, and in later years, institutions like the Caribbean Examination Council (CXC) began including creole poems in the literature syllabus as well as the fact that a new genre of poetry and music form, dub poetry and dancehall music, respectively, were given birth right here in Jamaica that a more serious academic investigation began to emerge regarding the importance of patois as a tool of communication within the broader and more formal spaces of our Caribbean cultural landscape.

In many ways, therefore, our mediums of socialisation and the education system have to be blamed for how the society as a whole perceives the use of Jamaican creole in divergent spaces.

Ironically, even though our first National Hero Marcus Garvey has been credited with the famous phrase of, "Emancipate yourself from mental slavery … none but ourselves can free our minds," he too seemed to have been trapped in the vortex of colonialism. Indeed, Marcus Garvey, the pan-Africanist, had very little 'Jamaicaness' in him. As the historical records show, he was very schooled and cultured, mainly in Eurocentric values of the so-called queen's English, mode of jacket and tie dress, and general British mannerisms. Truly, the jailer and the jailed were both in jail.

So, as Jamaica celebrates its 60th anniversary of Independence, it is imperative that we deconstruct the narrative surrounding the acceptance and use of not just our creole language but all aspects of our cultural heritage because that is the only way we will be able to truly decolonise and emancipate ourselves from economic, cultural, religious, and mental slavery.

Norman"Teacher" Collins


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