Our Language Dilemma
Creole (patois/patwa) versus Standard English – the debate continues.
It spills over into writing stories for our children. Some persons, especially the educators, frown on the use of creole in the stories as the children have to learn to use Standard English to pass exams using Standard English. (They speak it – don't let them have to read it, too )
But, more and more, it seems, the creole is the preferred form of speech for many Jamaicans and there are children coming from homes and communities where very little (if any) Standard English is spoken.
Here’s an anecdote. A friend brought her gardener’s two children to church one Sunday morning. They were visiting from a deep rural area. During the sermon the boy, about 10 years old, began to fidget and look distressed. When she asked him what was wrong, he answered, “Me nuh unnertan a wud de man a say.”
Translation, “I don’t understand one word the man is saying.” What are the implications for learning?
We do have two languages.
For the fiction writer, using the creole, or not, presents peculiar problems. Realistically, the writer cannot present a scene on a playfield, for example, and have the children speaking Standard English. They wouldn’t. So what to do? How to represent the reality without offending the gatekeepers? Very often the writers take a sort of middle ground. What is written in the story is a sort of no man’s land with a mix of the Creole and Standard, keeping as close to the Standard as is feasible. Since there is no standard way of spelling the creole words, most use phonetic spelling, or use the Standard spelling of an English word supposing that the creole speaker will interpret correctly. (in the creole). It is sometimes very confused and confusing.
Another problem is that the creole is very fluid. There is a range of usage, some with words seemingly close to Standard English, which creates the impression that the creole is merely ‘broken’ English.
Also, usage differs from parish to parish and from speaker to speaker, so persons will complain that the written creole is not authentic because they are not familiar with a particular form.
I was struck by the language problem again just today when writing a story. I had written this piece of dialogue:
“They all bringing flowers and laying it around the statues now.”
Deeper creole would change They to them(dem). But the problem with meaning is not the difference between them and they but with the word all. A standard speaker would be inclined to believe that the sentence should read – ‘They’re all bringing flowers ....’. A creole speaker would understand that all in the sentence I wrote does not mean all as in everybody, but they are now bringing flowers, or they’ve started bringing flowers...
Of course, the problem intensifies when we think of selling to the overseas market.
I was privileged some years ago to ghostwrite a story for the popular Beacon Street Girls series - Katani’s Jamaican Holiday by Annie Bryant
This is about a girl from Boston, USA, with Jamaican ancestors, visiting Jamaica with her grandmother. The series is meant for American ‘Tweens’. When I consulted the editor about using the creole, she agreed that the flavour would not be authentic if there was no creole usage on the streets and in experiences with the local people. I got around some of the problem, by having the American teen, Katani, ask for explanations. This had to be done judiciously, so that it didn’t become tedious or slow down the story.
When the book was published, some USA children commented that they found the creole difficult. Others were comfortable with it. A few who had Jamaican parentage were thrilled to see it in the story – but I was happy to see that even those who found the creole a bit difficult to understand still enjoyed the story.
I loved Charles Dickens’ stories and devoured them as a child. I didn’t understand all the Cockney speakers, but I could follow the stories.
Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn presents similar language difficulties for children here, as teachers soon discover. The last time I taught Huck Finn in a school, I had the class dramatize parts of the story using our creole. They did a good job of it, showing that they understood the story. Children are remarkable people.We very often underestimate them.
An additional challenge is that how language is used often indicates social standing, an issue we might not want to emphasise in children’s stories.
I have no answers to the present situation with our language(s).I wish I could be here many years into the future to see how we resolve the issue. Probably then, Jamaicans will be regarded as truly bi-lingual, moving with ease between both languages and frowning on neither.
As I was about to post this, I read about this conference:
As part of its Conferencias Caribeñas 9 lecture series for the 2011-2012 academic year, the Institute of Caribbean Studies of the University of Puerto Rico-Río Piedras (UPR-RP), invites the academic community and the general public to the lecture “Research on Multi-Lingualism and Cultural Diversity in Small Island Societies: The Case of Aruba,” by Dr. Lydia Emerencia (Director, Center for Research and Development, University of Aruba).
Aruba is a smaller island than Jamaica where most people speak the four main languages: Papiamento, Spanish, English and Dutch.
There might be some lessons there for us in Jamaica.