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7790: Patois Politics (see Haiti mention) (fwd)
From: Greg Chamberlain <GregChamberlain@compuserve.com>
By MATTHEW J. ROSENBERG
KINGSTON, Jamaica, May 6 (AP) -- Was reggae icon Bob Marley singing
entirely in English when he recorded his classic "Trenchtown Rock"?
Linguists say no -- the Jamaican singer was using patois, a mixture of
English and West African tongues spoken by slaves who were brought to this
Caribbean island by European colonizers.
Now, nearly 40 years after Jamaica won independence from Britain, some
people are arguing that patois should be granted official status along with
"Politicians love to quote Bob Marley's 'free yourself from mental
slavery' line all the time," said Carolyn Cooper, a literature professor at
the University of the West Indies. "Ignoring patois is mental slavery, the
worst kind. It's old colonial racism and classism."
In English, you might tell a waiter, "Bring me some shrimp." In patois,
it becomes, "Kyai com gimmi a janga."
Proponents of using patois argue that since many Jamaicans have
difficulty understanding English, it is shameful to conduct the business of
official Jamaica, like Parliament, in a foreign tongue.
Anglophiles call patois "lazy English" and dismiss it as a vernacular.
"What intellectuals like to call another language is pure laziness,"
Morris Cargill, a white Jamaican newspaper columnist, said before he died
last year. "You can't read Dickens or Jane Austen in patois."
Nobody debates that point.
But patois supporters say the language differs from English in its
phonetic and grammatical system -- the measure of "what makes a language
distinct," said Michel DeGraff, a linguistics professor at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Most of the words in Jamaican patois, like other English Caribbean
patois, are English words filtered through a distinct phonetic system with
fewer vowels and different consonant sounds. Patois is written phonetically
to approximate these differences.
Thus, in patois, the English "girl" becomes "gyal."
A small amount of patois words, between 5 percent and 10 percent, are of
African origin, like "nyam," to eat, or "duppy," which means ghost.
But the greatest divergence from English is in the grammar, which has
origins in the languages of West Africa. For this reason, English and
patois speakers often cannot understand each other, even though most of the
words have English origins.
A clear example of West African grammar in Jamaican patois is the way
verbs are formed in the past tense.
Instead of using a suffix like "ed," as in "walked," a patois speaker
puts a word before a verb, like "deh." The English "I walked" becomes "me
deh walk" in patois. The same is done in Haitian Creole by adding "te"
before a verb to indicate past tense.
Linguists call this "tense marking," and "it is a common feature of West
African languages," DeGraff said.
Linguists actually consider the name patois to be a misnomer for what
Jamaicans speak. They prefer to call it a Creole -- a distinct language
with African and European roots -- because a patois is considered a dialect
of a European language.
Nearly all Jamaicans, regardless of class, speak patois.
Those who speak English fluently, mostly people from the middle and
upper classes, tend to use patois for emphasis when they are angry, to
affect a down-to-earth persona or to talk to someone of a lower class.
It is the reliance on patois that creates problems in places like the
After a recent bail hearing on murder charges, a 26-year-old defendant
asked a reporter whether a judge had said he could go home. What the judge
really said was: "The defendant is remanded in custody without bail."
In patois the judge could have said: "Yah ago get lockup fi now; yah nah
Schools where patois-speaking children are thrust into a primarily
English environment are also a concern for critics of English as the only
official language. "What good is it to teach a child an alphabet for a
language he doesn't speak, that his teacher probably doesn't speak, and
then make him read books in that foreign language?" said Hubert Devonish, a
linguistics professor at the University of the West Indies.
Devonish's solution is to use patois to teach English. "We've already
got a dictionary, a system for writing it," he said.
But some are skeptical.
"These kids are going to end up learning only patois," said Maryanne
Wilson, a 35-year-old mother of two school-age children. "Then what? My
kids are going to apply to school in America and write their applications
essays in patois?"
The government says people have to come to an agreement over what role
patois should have before can be considered as an official language.
"We hear the debate, but the issue is not settled as far as (the
government) is concerned," said Information Minister Maxine Henry-Wilson.
To many patois speakers, the reliance on English by Jamaica's elite
makes what Marley said in "Trenchtown Rock" ring true: "No want you fi
galang so; you want cold come I up."
It means, loosely, "I don't want you to behave like that; you're trying
to keep me down."
On the Net:
Jamaicans.com language site: http://www.jamaicans.com/speakja/index.htm