Sun | Aug 20, 2017

Rhonda Williams | Creole more deserving of official status

Published:Wednesday | June 15, 2016 | 6:00 AM
Rhonda Williams

Since the prime minister's latest pronouncements on "seriously" considering Spanish as the official second language of Jamaica, I have been engaged in numerous discussions on social media. To my dismay, people are absolutely clueless about the characteristics of a language, so much so that they have banished the very idea of Jamaican Creole being classified as a language. "How ludicrous!" they must be saying.

Well, unfortunately for the 'well-spoken' folks of Jamaica, Patois, patwa, Creole, Jamaican dialect, Jameikan or whatever they feel comfortable calling it, it is a language. Now let us examine this obvious fact.

It has been agreed upon by scholars that a language has 10 distinguished characteristics. I'll list six of them:

1. Language is arbitrary: This means there is no intrinsic link between the words of a language and the meaning those words convey. For example, there is no reason 'to eat' in English means to consume food. The same for 'comer' and 'nyam', which convey the same meaning in Spanish and Jamaican Creole, respectively. Words are assigned meaning arbitrarily but once a meaning is assigned, it stays assigned.

2. Language is social: A language is a set of standard communicative signals used by humans to facilitate comm-unication. The social functionality of language allows members in a community to interact with each other, having adopted the requite rules of the language. Languages exist within a society and act as a medium for accommodating human relations.

For example, an English speaker may exchange a friendly greeting with his neighbour,

"Good morning, Peter! And how are you doing this fine morning?"

"It has been a splendid morning, George! The crisp air is rather refreshing."

A speaker of Jamaican Creole is able to have this exact interaction,

"Maanin, Peter! Wa de galang wid yu ina di maanin ya?"

"Mi de ya a gwaan iizi bak ino, George, an a tek in som cuul briiz."

3. Language is symbolic: A language comprises of different sounds and graphological features that constitute a speaking and writing system. These symbols, whether spoken or written, denote meaning and are accepted by the speaking community as the standard.

4. Language is systematic: The symbolic nature of language falls within a multiplicity of systems that ensures the efficiency of the language. All languages, including Jamaican Creole, have grammatical and phonological systems that dictate how the language is used.

For example, the plural marker in English is /s/: The boys are running to catch the bus. However, in Jamaican Creole, the plural marker is 'dem': Di bwai dem a ron fi kech di bos.




5. Language is vocal: With the exception of sign language, all languages are represented by sound generated by physiological compositions in the body. Each language produces different sounds with some sounds non-existent in some languages. History suggests that written symbols for languages came much later than the established sounds and for that reason, sound is primary as speech supersedes written symbols. This charac-teristic speaks specifically to Creole, as the argument is always that Creole does not have a writing system (which it does), but in the event that it did not, its ability to develop a writing system would still constitute it a language, as there is an active speaking system.

6. Language is non-instinctive: Language is an innate function that humans acquire because they have the biological ability to do so, unless born with a disability. This particular feature speaks specifically to one of the critical barriers to second-language learning, as there is a critical period within which a human learns a language and retains use of that language through constant exposure. In our language situation, the majority of people in Jamaica innately adopt Jamaican Creole as their first language and English is learnt in schools. Due to inconsistent exposure and engagement of the English language, Creole speakers have difficulty mastering the language.

In response to the prime minister's feel-good announ-cement, a language does not become official through an announcement. It becomes official through legislation and requires that all official documents and procedures of the country be available in that language. It is also important that any official language of a country has a large and influential speaking community that would warrant such status at the official level. That is not so for Spanish in Jamaica.

A better case could be made for Mandarin, and still I don't believe our interactions with the Chinese warrant elevating their language to official status.

Jamaican Creole, on the other hand, satisfies every criteria for both being a language and deserving of official status, but colonialism still has us on a leash.

- Rhonda Williams is a BEd in language education and MA in cultural studies. Email feedback to and