Yes, but is it prappa? patwa


TEN years ago, when my friend Bill would tell his teenaged son to “Speak English, please”, I may have suffered the delusion that my children were I ever so blessed, and would never need such an instruction from me. These days, I think of Bill and Matthew every time I have cause to say to my children: “We speak English here”, ’cause Lawd know sey dem come wid some patwa inna mi ears and sometimes I am afraid it will “stick” and they might never speak standard English again.

After listening to Tony Rebel on Thursday night’s public forum on “Celebrating the Jamaican Language”, I have forsaken some of that fear for embracing my children as bilingual. When Rebel said “Our children will forget everything they know in school but they know every word of a Vybz Kartel song”, I immediately felt at home. Yes, my children speak the Queen’s English, and yes they speak Vybz Kartel too and are very comfortable in both languages. It’s a real skill, if you ask me, for it allows them to communicate with everyone in any local situation and not be derided anywhere because of it.

Hosted by the Jamaican Language Unit/Jamiekan Langwij Uuunit at the University of the West Indies, in partnership with the Bible Society of the West Indies, this first public forum afforded stakeholders from various sectors: academia, business, cultural and entertainment industries and public life to hear and present perspectives on what’s happening with the Jamaican language.


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br />After an occasional introductory “Bless Up” or “What a gwaan” greeting to which we would respond with a rousing “Wi deh ya”, 10 of the 14 presenters delivered their six-minute-long presentations in standard English. Ironic, yes, but that’s not the point. The take away from the evening was most certainly the feel-good sentiment about the power of our culture and our language and how, as Sidney Bartley, the principal director of Culture and Creative Industries in the Ministry of Culture, said we have inserted that culture into the world.

Language is not just sound and the written word, it is also that “beat chest” motion and “To the world” movement that Usain Bolt dares to show the world every time he runs. Those are the very moments which one billion people around the world see, appreciate and identify distinctly as being “Jamaican” language.

And being Jamaican is so cool that the language itself is being studied by Ghanaians, Japanese, Europeans, and Ugandans. According to Professor Hubert Devonish, Caribbean linguist co-ordinator with the JLU at UWI, artistes like Punjabi MC and Apache Indian and Gentleman use it to write lyrics and earn a living from music from singing dancehall and reggae songs. The Jamaican language itself has become a means of making money, and speaking Jamaican has become the international mode by which non-Jamaicans pay tribute to how ‘cool’ Jamaica is.

“Part of who we are is patwa,” says MP Lloyd B Smith, who will seek to bring official recognition of the Jamaican language from the House of Parliament. For our words have weight and rhythm, our language has its own syntax and inventories of sound that are not duplicated in any other language and when we speak from the heart our native language, our mother tongue, the language that we develop in those first three years of life that is how we are comfortable with understanding and expressing ourselves.

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Have you ever seen some of our international athletes painfully pepper their patwa with an American ‘twang’ in an attempt to express themselves? Official recognition of Jamaican will abate some of the insecurity that we feel when we don’t speak the Queen’s English. Preservation of our language and greetings and culture, is paramount, said Dr Andre Haughton, lest we assimilate and become proper English men and women.

We do our children a disservice to not teach them in their native language, says Dr Michelle Stewart, Faith Lindon and Dr Karen Carpenter. We deny them their basic human rights — right to fair trial and freedom from discrimination, says Dr Celia Blake-Brown when our young men cannot understand the standard English language used in the courts. The perception of Jamaican language as a patwa prevents otherwise technically capable people from sailing through an interview and getting a job.

These short, heartfelt arguments were rousing and powerful and culminated in a short presentation by Ann Holt OBE, director of the British and Foreign Bible Societies, which underwrote the translation of the New Testament Bible from standard English to Jamaican. This, she said, was a major act of empowerment and endorsement of the Jamaican language and she could think of no better time to deliver the publication than in October, in our 50th year of Independence. It was a way of “putting something back into a society from which we took so much”.

Bust as I listened to a reading of Matthew/Matyou 5, verses 1-12 delivered in patwa, the poetry and symmetry of the Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount were lost and all I could think of were Bill and Matthew and wished that the presenter would “speak English, please”. Clearly, there are some things that will be lost in translation.

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