Pride and prejudice: what Jamaica’s language ‘debate’ is really about

In the USA, English is the ONLY official language. Why then would many public and private organizations do anything but communicate in English? Marketing! By that I mean reaching the widest audience possible. For that reason, in areas like Washington DC, it’s no surprise to see signs like this on a public bus I was riding this morning, as I wrote this post.

US: Happy to be bilingual, official or not

What that shows is an awareness that officially-sanctioned things are not what makes for effectiveness.

Greater Washington and many other parts of the USA has many Hispanic people. Spanish is clearly the 2nd most used language in these area. So, more people get ‘served’ in both English and Spanish. No need for government diktat. But, no one can be forced to present things other than in English. However, most official and business entities offer both. Get an answering machine and you’re presented with English and Spanish options. Yet, Spanish is a FOREIGN language in the USA. But, its prevalence has changed accepted practices.

Step now into Jamaica. We’ve not seen fit in most places to pay lip service to the prevalence of a second NATIVE language. No public broadcasts or publications are in Patois. (Some local businesses have done so with adverts.) Now some of that reflects the fact that Patois is really our oral means of communication. It’s not codified in written form. (Seychelles has Creole as one of its three official languages and teaches it in school.) But that’s not the full Jamaican story.

Patois separates Jamaicans. Those who are skilled in standard English are usually better educated and probably better off in many material ways. Patois as the main language is used by our ‘lesser’ citizens. So, giving it more prominence means implicit relegation of standard English and with that implicit devaluation of a better education. That’s a big social boulder.

Giving Patois any kind of high position also gives better voice to the illiterate, no longer trapped by the written word.

But the problem of our illiteracy is much broader than the Patois-standard English debate: it goes to the core of how much progress we can expect to make.

My contention is that we’ve been ashamed of Patois, like having only torn underwear. A shame fostered by those who see it only as ‘broken’ or ‘bad’ English, ‘corrupt’ and not honourable in being ‘derived’ like standard English (as Miss Lou noted).

But that sense of shame has been carried with a perversely proud prejudice. If you don’t believe me check the transcripts or television recordings of the West Kingston Commission of Inquiry (COE) that concluded this year. See how mastery of the languages separate the classes and the actors.

It’s also my contention that it’s one of many things that’s made us less productive and less competitive. That comes from the many ‘messages’ that get missed by people who do not understand well standard English, or the misunderstanding that comes from poor understanding of Patois by those not familiar with it. Again, check the confusions during the COE. Many foreigners working in Jamaica, who have studied standard English, comment that they do not understand much of what ordinary Jamaicans say to them. I would call that lost market opportunity.

Ironically the world expects Jamaicans to speak Patois, or at the very least have a very distinct accent and many word uses that are not standard. Remember VW’s 2013 Super Bowl ad? I lose count of the people I encounter when I travel who hear my very clear English and refuse to accept that I’m a Jamaican.

But denial is one of our many traits. 😊

Author: Dennis G Jones (aka 'The Grasshopper')

Retired International Monetary Fund economist. My blog is for organizing my ideas and thoughts about a range of topics. I was born in Jamaica, but spent 30 years being educated, living, and working in the UK. I lived in the USA for two decades, and worked and travelled abroad, extensively, throughout my careers and for pleasure. My views have a wide international perspective. Father of 3 girls. Also, married to an economist. :)

2 thoughts on “Pride and prejudice: what Jamaica’s language ‘debate’ is really about”

  1. Many Asians (especially Chinese) live in San Francisco, where announcements on public transport etc. are done in Mandarin as well as English. It is true that language in Jamaica is sadly a divisive issue. I’ve noticed foreigners do think it is an “accent” though, rather than a language. This of course leads to many problems…

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    1. Many places have accepted to need to acknowledge the presence of other languages even though they’re not official, e.g. Urdu and Bengali in some parts of England. I just used an example staring me in the face.

      Language divisions are an useful thing to exploit in Jamaica, but note how street red of politicians is directly linked to their ability to really chat to de peeple dem inna fidem langwij 🙂

      What foreigners think doesn’t really bother me: I don’t expect them to grasp properly most national issues. Londoners do not all speak Cockney. Please don’t tell me how to pronounce Manchester! Wales in not a part of England 🙂 Not all Scots wear kilts. There is no Southern Ireland! No, I don’t smoke weed! 🙂

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