“It would be a fine thing indeed if the world was run by those who judge men from books and the world from maps!”. Napoleon’s jibe against ivory tower intellectuals came to mind when I read Marcia Sutherland’s December 5th letter about my article “Thinking in patois”, which accused me of “linguistic bigotry”, advised me to “examine the scientific linguistic evidence”, and chided me for lacking “scholarly expertise”.


Now I find it rather rich for an American university Associate Professor to lecture a full time resident Jamaican about our language situation. For linguistics scholar or not, no one who lives here can fail to be angered at the way in which verbal underdevelopment has impoverished so many intelligent people. I have interviewed enough job applicants in my business to be aware of the injustice our educational system has done to the many Jamaicans who cannot communicate effectively in English. All the linguistic research in the world means nothing compared to the reality of trying to teach someone who can’t even pronounce the word computer how to use one.


Ms. Anderson of course talks about “linguistic bigotry” in the secure knowledge of being able to express herself well enough in the world at large to make a comfortable living. But does she and others who would put purely spoken dialects on the same level as written languages ever stop to think of the constricted half lives to which those unable to communicate with anyone outside their immediate milleau are condemned?


The almost impenetrable barrier between those who can speak articulate English and those who cannot is in my view the single most pernicious factor in the ridiculous class divisions that plague this country. The condescending manner in which many ‘proper’ speakers address their verbal ‘inferiors’ is extremely annoying. But even more irritating is the cringingly subservient attitude of those who cannot express themselves clearly towards those who can.


Anyone who is honest with themselves knows what I mean. And those who think I exaggerate should tune in to KLAS FM’s Dr. Mary show. The good doctor is far from arrogant. But some callers are so painfully inarticulate in expressing their ailments that she has to prompt them in almost childlike terms. One can literally sense in some voices the frustration of being unable to verbalize their feelings, and as a Jamaican I find it an embarrassing condemnation of our schools. (I listen to it because my deportee only picks up KLAS.)


Apart from its accidentally large vocabulary there is nothing special about English. It is merely one of many written languages, and is not inherently superior to Amharic, Sanskrit, or any other mature tongue. In his recent column “Patois is our language” Hughlin Boyd claimed that English is not a true language because it borrowed from other tongues. But every known mode of speech has done the same. There are no pure languages or pure races. We are all mongrels speaking bastard tongues.


English however is the dominant language of its era and the one which Jamaicans learn to read and write. And whenever I travel to a non-English speaking land I am grateful for this. For thanks to the Pax Brittanica and Pax Americana, every country on earth speaks at least a little English.


Of course speaking the world’s dominant language makes English speakers arrogant. We expect to be understood no matter where we go and make no effort to learn any other tongue. But as a poor foreign language student I am grateful to have won first prize in the linguistic lottery of life.


I have nothing against patois, and probably spend more time speaking it than formal English. For it is a wonderful medium for expressing feelings, and our emotions are after all the most important part of our existence. But while dialect’s emotive fluidity and directness can create wonderful poetry - as wordsmiths like Robert Burns and Louise Bennett have shown – it is often inadequate for practical affairs. Science and business for example require the technical terminology which only a written language can provide. It is the inability of far too many Jamaicans to speak exact English when it is necessary - not the speaking of patois – which constitutes our real language problem.


Patois could no doubt be developed into a broad and precise mode of communication if we invested enough resources and time. But why waste precious energy on re-inventing the wheel? Would it really make sense to translate every English document into our dialect?


Jamaica’s 2.5 million people account for less than one two thousandth of the world’s over 6 billion, so we will always be the global equivalent of a mouse among elephants. The most we can do – unless we want to get trampled - is choose which elephant’s back to travel on. A country our size has two options - either share the tongue of some larger entity or become an isolated linguistic outpost. Only a very foolish nation would choose to become a verbal North Korea, and we should be glad the written tongue decreed to us by history is the modern universal language.


Those who term Jamaica a bilingual country speaking both patois and English are probably correct. But the idea of patois classroom lessons seems pointless to me - why teach something which comes naturally? Perhaps though if English were taught as a second language all Jamaicans would be able to use it properly.


None of this has anything to do with race. It is simply about possessing the appropriate linguistic tools for the appropriate occasion. And those who see English as a symbol of British superiority are frankly still intellectually shackled by the propaganda of their former colonial masters. For the human genome project has shown race to be a scientifically meaningless term, and only the ignorant talk of superior or inferior ethnic groups.


All human beings are descendants of the same group of Africans who began to colonize the world about 100,000 years ago, meaning we all share the same genetic heritage. As books like Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel” have shown, the differing fortunes of the various continents have been due almost solely to climatic and geographic variation. And anyway history is a wheel, with those at the top and bottom regularly exchanging places. Britain itself has gone from Roman colony in 44 BC to world dominator in 1850 to medium sized nation in 2001.


Marcus Garvey entreated Jamaicans to emancipate themselves from mental slavery. But we think as we talk. And we will never be a fully free nation until all Jamaicans are able to converse on equal terms with everyone that speaks our language. changkob@hotmail.com

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