Jamaica mulls making Patois official language as British ties fray | ET REALITY


Walk into any government office, courtroom or classroom in Jamaica and you will be expected to speak the official language, English.

But venture outside, tune into a radio show, or flip through the pages of Testimony of Di Jamiekan Nyuuor enter someone’s house or move around the feed of Jamaican influencers, and another language dominates: the surprisingly vibrant Patois.

Long stigmatized with second-class status and often mischaracterized as a poorly structured form of English, Patois has its own distinctive grammar and pronunciation. Linguists say Patois, which is also called Patwa, Creole, or simply Jamaican, is as different from English as English is from German. It presents a dizzying variety of words taken from African, European and Asian languages.

Now, as Jamaica moves forward with its plans to cut ties with the British monarchy (a change that would remove King Charles III as its head of state and turn the Commonwealth’s largest country in the Caribbean into a republic), it is is building momentum to make the Patois the official government of Jamaica. language, on par with English.

“If there was ever a time to definitively change the status of Jamaican Creole, it is now,” said Oneil Madden, a linguist at Jamaica’s Northern Caribbean University.

But the issue of linguistic sovereignty has Jamaica’s top political leaders taking positions. And the increasingly intense debate touches on questions of national identity, class divisions and the legacy of slavery in what was once one of Britain’s most prized overseas possessions.

A major change in language policy in Jamaica (which has about 2.8 million people and is the third largest English-speaking country in the Americas, after the United States and Canada) would resonate throughout the Caribbean and parts of Central and South America. South.

Last month, Mark Golding, leader of the opposition People’s National Party, promised to make Jamaican an official language, citing its importance in projecting the island nation’s culture beyond its borders.

“If he is loved abroad, why don’t we give him some respect?” Golding asked in a moving speech, peppered with Patois words like “yaad,” meaning home.

Prime Minister Andrew Holness of the ruling Jamaica Labor Party has taken a more subtle position, saying the language should be “institutionalized,” although he stops short of saying it should be elevated to official status.

Language politics are coming into sharp focus as Jamaica moves forward with plans to hold a referendum next year on reforming its constitution and its ties to its colonial-era overlord. Although Jamaica gained its independence in 1962, the break with the United Kingdom was never complete. Linking its legal system to that of Britain, Jamaica’s highest court of appeal remains the Privy Council, based in London and made up of judges from Britain’s Supreme Court.

That lingering influence is coming under renewed criticism in Jamaica, where more than 90 percent of the population is black and memories of centuries of an economy based on slavery linger. marked repeatedly for bloody revolts – especially after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak refused this year to apologize for Britain’s role in the slave trade or pledge to pay reparations.

Still, supporters of the move to grant the Patois official status say it would go far beyond symbolizing a break with Britain. They argue that the change would have practical implications and would finally allow Jamaicans to conduct official business in places such as tax offices or parish courts in the country’s most widely spoken language. The use of patois in such settings is largely ad hoc and dependent on the whims of government employees.

Some of the strongest support for making Jamaican an official language comes from the education system. A growing number of teachers and administrators argue that prioritizing English does a disservice to younger children starting school when they only speak fluent Patois.

“We are teaching children to read in a foreign language,” said Grace Baston, who recently resigned as principal of one of Jamaica’s top public high schools.

But Baston added: “No one is trying to dethrone the Englishman. “It’s about preparing students to thrive in both languages.”

A 2021 report found that about a third of sixth graders were illiterate in English and more than half had difficulty writing in English. Ms. Baston and others advocate using Patois as a bridge, teaching young children the basics in Jamaican before transitioning to English.

The reaction against such proposals has been fierce. Peter Espeut, a biblical scholar whose relatively prosperous family spoke English at home, said he learned Creole by talking to “domestic helpers in the house and in the garden.”

Espeut, archivist for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Kingston, said granting enhanced status to the patois would be costly and impractical in a country with a couple of hundred Catholic schools. “There is no way for the Catholic Church to prepare Jamaican language textbooks.”

Others are much more forceful, arguing that adopting Patois as an official language would make Jamaicans less proficient in the predominant global language for international trade, tourism and academic research.

“The majority of Jamaicans are not fluent in English, to tell the truth, because we prefer the language of our plantations, which, to a large extent, has paralyzed our social, intellectual and economic development,” said Andrew Tucker, a former Spanish professor at the Howard University. wrote in a column in The Jamaica Observer. “No serious foreign investor wants to communicate with someone who speaks the Jamaican dialect.”

But Jamaica is moving into new areas inside and outside the country. Khadine Hylton, a lawyer and motivational speaker who goes by Miss Kitty, effortlessly blends Jamaican and English on the radio. television and social networks. Jamaican comedians in Tik Toksuch as Negus Imara, and Ghanaian singers such as Stonebwoy reach large number of followers on patois.

Other Caribbean countries, especially where creole languages ​​are spoken alongside English, are closely following the debate here. Haiti, Curacao and Aruba, some of Jamaica’s Caribbean neighbors, are among the few countries in the world that have elevated their creole languages ​​to official status.

Although theories vary, it is generally believed that creole languages ​​were formed during the colonial era from contact with languages ​​such as English, Portuguese or Arabic. In Jamaica, which was under British colonial rule for more than 300 years, discussions of patois are intertwined with its connections to the slave trade.

“Because the language was created in the context of slavery, the tendency has been to reject it,” said Joseph Farquharson, director of the Jamaican Language Unit at the University of the West Indies.

Linguist John H. McWhorter suggests that English-based Caribbean creole languages ​​crystallized in the 17th century on the coast of Ghana, made the leap to the outposts of the Caribbean, and then spread to Jamaica and other parts of the Americas.

Others suggest that Jamaican, as well as other creole languages, merged directly in the Caribbean in the 17th century, as the Atlantic trade in enslaved Africans intensified, as English came into contact with various African languages ​​such as Kikongo and Twi, one of the main vocabulary contributors to Jamaican.

Either way, Patois’s evolution offers insight into the development of Jamaica as a British colony.

For example, him ganja immortalized in reggae lyrics got his name from the Hindi word for cannabis, gāṁjā, after Indian workers were taken to Jamaica in the 19th century. Pikni, the patois word for little boy, comes from pequeninho, Portuguese word for very small, reflecting the influence that Portuguese and Brazilian traders once exerted over slaves.

And the word nyam, to eat, is believed to come from wolofa lingua franca in West Africa.

Amina Blackwood Meeks, a prominent Jamaican storyteller, attributed part of the controversy over the official recognition of patois to persistent contradictions in Jamaican society. She noted that Jamaica was known as the home of Marcus Garvey, the black nationalist whose ideas Influenced Anticolonial movements in Africa.

“But this is also the land where a few months ago Jamaicans were getting up at 4 in the morning and standing in line because Krispy Kreme came to Jamaica and they were giving out free donuts,” said Edna Manley speaker Blackwood Meeks. Faculty of Visual and Performing Arts, a Kingston art school.

“Jamaica’s headspace is a difficult headspace,” he added, connecting the fervor for donuts, especially those considered superior because they come from the rich industrialized world, with fears that challenging the supremacy of English could harm Jamaica.

He added: “Anything that resembles a break with what we believe has been good for us has been resisted.”

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