Jamaica faces a linguistic paradox. We realize that language is a vital part of our culture, and that Jamaican patois, or patwah, must not be stigmatized as inferior. Yet many students leave school unable to speak standard English, severely compromising their employment opportunities and social mobility. Language, like dress, has to vary with the occasion.


“One’s class is cruelly stamped on one’s tongue” wrote George Orwell. Research in the UK shows that some accents make even well-dressed individuals less acceptable to potential employers. Persons with these accents are also more likely to be perceived as guilty of crime. Some argue for mandatory elocution classes to eliminate such ‘undesirable’ accents. But others say diversity in regional accents, like diversity in cuisine or clothing, enriches a culture.


Accents are strongly linked with the idea of self, and this is even truer of languages. What we say is often who we are. Yet the spread of metropolitan languages, especially English, is killing off minority tongues at the rate of one a day. At current rates less than half the world’s present 7,000 languages will be spoken in a 100 years.


Languages incorporate a unique range of knowledge, and the passing of traditional ways of speaking may mean a culture’s death. Language is often a nation’s soul. Robert Burns’ poetry is indispensable to the Scottish identity - the anniversary of his birth is the Scots’ national day. The Kalevala, Finland's epic poem compiled in the 19th century from old ballads and lyrics, virtually created Finnish national consciousness. The Welsh anthem sees self identity and linguistic heritage as inseparable: “My country, tho’ crushed by a hostile array / The language of Cambria lives out to this day.”


Whether Jamaican patwah is a dialect or a language, the way we speak is the most distinctive facet of our identity. A Jamaican talks like a Jamaican. Our most important cultural figure was also a wordsmith. Louise Bennett’s insistence on the inherent worth of Jamaican expression established in her people a respect for their language and tradition - patwah came to be seen not as merely ‘corrupted’ English, but a creation of immense vitality, creativity and humour. As she put it:


‘Some thought Jamaican-English was vulgar, out-of-order language. It came out of the African heritage and at that time anything African was bad: hair, colour, skin, language, music. But I thought it was fascinating. Everything had a rhythm. It was a creation of the people. I persisted in writing in dialect in spite of the opposition because nobody else was doing so. I wanted to put on paper some of the wonderful things that people say in dialect. There was such rich material! You could never say “look here” as vividly as “kuyah”!’


Luciano spoke for all Jamaicans when he said


‘Miss Lou has worked forward into my consciousness that I can be proud of my culture and proud of myself’.


Jamaica’s chief cultural contribution to the world is reggae, and only a vibrant indigenous folk culture could have given rise to such a distinctive music. Now ska, rocksteady and reggae can, to an extent, be considered American R&B derivatives. But deejay toasting was completely different from anything heard before. It is the most original aspect of our music.


Never in music had a people expressed themselves so forcefully in vernacular. Deejays imposed their language on the music, making the rhythm and movement of words the song’s focal point. They gave complete expression to the nuance and intonation of everyday speech, which are stifled in traditional vocal styling. Only a people supremely comfortable with its language would have had the self-confidence to do this. Miss Lou had done her job well.


U-Roy and his followers changed popular music across the globe. Hip Hop, the world’s biggest selling music format, is after all only an American version of deejay. Yet many Jamaican deejays now slavishly copy the rap artists they see on BET. This ‘hip-hopization’ of dancehall may well be a precursor of the Americanization of Jamaica language and culture in general. The primary cultural influence on our young today is cable television, which is 99% American. Nearly all the latest styles and slang now come from TV, and young boys are abandoning cricket for the basketball they watch every night on cable. It is not inconceivable that patwah will be one of the languages killed off by globalization.



Languages change naturally over time, and some wonder if the linguistic globalization of cinema and television will one day produce a single homogenized world language - American accented English. But not all historical forces are irresistible. We can still preserve Jamaica’s language and culture. In a TV dominated world, community cable could be vital. Pertinently aware of this, the Broadcast Commission is conducting a study on indigenous programming.


Another suggestion is elocution classes where students use great Jamaican speakers as models. The strangled ‘twanging’ of some of our track stars is a painful contrast to Michael Holding’s articulate yet unmistakably Jamaican cricket commentary. If our youngsters were taught to speak standard English in a Jamaican manner, perhaps all our athletic and cultural ambassadors would make us as proud as Mr. Holding when interviewed.


In the end people only preserve what they think is of worth. We talk a lot about them, but do we Jamaicans really care about our ‘roots and kulcha’? Time will tell.

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