Sun | Jan 21, 2018

Olive Nelson: The tyranny of English

Published:Tuesday | March 22, 2016 | 12:00 AM
Olive Nelson

The psyche of the black race has been dealt a heavy blow by the English language. Virtually every known thing can be rendered evil, wicked and nasty by prefixing it with the word 'black'. Sheep, market, list, magic, heart, mail, spot, mark, mood, guard come readily to mind.

Even the Mass, the word by which the worship service of the Roman Catholic Church is known, can be so transformed to connote the worship of Satan - black Mass.

On the other hand, the Oxford English Dictionary would have us know that 'white' not only signifies 'innocent and untainted', but that white magic, white hope and a white lie are all nice, harmless things. Of course, there is nothing accidental about all of this. The tyranny of the English language is real.

The tragedy is that we have recklessly bought into the script, dutifully imported the racist notions into our beloved Patois, and unwittingly embellished them with equally racist slogans such as 'swapping black dog fi monkey' and 'pot calling kettle black'.

It is only with a conscious and sustained effort on our part to reject and erase these subliminal racist messages, that we can earnestly begin the process of emancipation from mental slavery. Most of these terms I have deleted from my vocabulary and I no longer wear black to funerals - only to joyous events.

Still, one has to admit that the English language has served us very well as an international communication tool. It has also provided career options for some of our academics, who, excelling at it, have gone on to make a name and a living from its teaching and application both here and overseas. There is then really no need to blame it for every act of miscommunication in this country.

Professor Carolyn Cooper's persistence in doing this is unfortunate. A recent attempt of hers was in her Sunday Gleaner column of March 13, 2016, even more so than usual. She has chosen to lay the blame for the confusion surrounding the Jamaica Labour Party's proposed $1.5m PAYE tax break squarely at the feet of the English language. Had they communicated the promise in Patois, she posits, "everybody would have understood the message".

But Professor Cooper's Patois adaptation of the associated JLP ad is more than a straightforward translation of the English (JLP) version. She has reinforced the message in her Patois version by adding two sentences (or parts thereof) - "Not fi all a unu. A ongle fi who a work and get payslip" - which could easily be rendered in English, had the JLP been so minded.



However, by the looks of things, that 'clarification' may have proven even more confusing, for those earning less than $600,000 and getting payslips (but being below the current threshold) are already paying no tax.

Should 'hell and powder house' break out at the prime minister's failure to deliver the anticipated $18,000 payday, it will hardly be the fault of the language in which the message was delivered.

Professor Cooper's admission in her column that English is not being "taught efficiently" in our schools is quite refreshing, but her apparent lack of concern for the implications of this situation is of some importance. It is as if as long as we can say what we want to say in Patois, all is well.

If this is the attitude of language professors at the highest seat of learning in our land, we can rest assured that in due course, we will all only be able to speak to each other.

But when the last punishing death blow is dealt to the English language in this country, it is the so-called chaka-chaka Patois spelling to which we will resort in our written communications and not to any imported prapa-prapa imposition.

Dat will teach di professors dem at the university fi stop spell the biblical book 'Luke' one way inna English an anadda way inna Patois, although the two sound di same way.

- Olive Nelson is a chartered accountant. Email feedback to and