Wed | Aug 15, 2018

Why broadcast in THAT language?

Published:Sunday | October 5, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Jamaican language is often used in news broadcasts by disgruntled protesters, such as seen here on August 25 in a demonstration against a hike in bus fares. But Hubert Devonish says the use of Jamaican by broadcasters is important in the shift towards viewing Patwa as a bona fide medium utilised by professionals to inform the public. - Jermaine Barnaby/Photographer

Hubert Devonish, Guest Columnist

We hear the voices daily and nightly from our radio and television sets, shouting, 'Wi waahn jostis!' The language of choice for these voices is not the language of the announcer.

That voice of authority, typically in measured Standard Jamaican English, had preceded the insert with the statement, "The residents of Community X came on the road to protest." The insert may be followed, in the same voice, with, "... And in Parliament today ... ."

The people speak one language, Jamaican, while the authoritative voice reporting on what these people have done, or are doing, or are saying, is always in English. No radio or television station has ever, outside of the odd short-lived experiment, broadcast the entire news in the Jamaican language, the language of the mass of the population. Yet, everyone, even the most educated sectors of the population, also speak or, at least, understand, Jamaican. Thus, the cries of "Wi waahn jostis!" are understood by everyone, or are they?

For those who have power, as a result of their education, their wealth or by virtue of having been elected to exercise power, English is the only legitimate language in which to address power. Thus, a year or two ago, In the Senate, Mark Golding was upbraided by the then president of the Senate for using the Jamaican-language phrase, 'Rispek dyuu', on the grounds that THAT language was not allowed in Parliament.

Never mind that the citizenry, on whose behalf Parliament is supposed to govern, uses THAT language. Nor that the taxes collected to pay the legislators and used to run Parliament were generated by people who earned their money using THAT language. THAT language is not a legitimate language, but one for the rum bar, the street corner and the market. It cannot function as a medium of rational communication, for reasoning, nor for calm and deliberate contemplation.

The authoritative standard Jamaican English voice which follows the emotional "Wi waahn jostis!" on our radio and television sets, with "... And in Parliament today ...," makes that point very clearly. It is saying something like, "Having heard the emotional and irrational shouts of the unlettered masses, let us move on to serious business."

The "Wi waahn jostis!" message has been heard across the whole nation. However, its meaning, to the ears of those who have the power to provide justice, has been destroyed. This has happened in the very way in which the news broadcast contrasts the anguished Jamaican language of the insert with the authoritative English language of the news narrative delivered by the news anchor.


The constitution of Haiti includes the declaration that the (Haitian) Creole and French are the two official languages of that republic. It, however, prefaces this with a statement that (Haitian) "Creole is the language that unites all Haitians". There is a cynical view of the Jamaican language situation, as seen in language use on radio and television newscasts in Jamaica. It is that the Jamaican language is the language that divides all Jamaicans. This can be seen in the results of a 1983 study by Denise Smalling in which it is reported that, for Jamaicans of limited literacy and education, only about 50 per cent of typical radio news broadcasts is understood. In a 2013 UWI Jamaican Language Unit study looking at the abilities of Jamaicans to understand radio news, it was found that those with the least education in the sample understood close to nothing of radio news broadcasts in English.

Thus, when the voice of authority speaks back to the 'masses' (Or is it the 'massive'?) using the language of authority, English, much, if not all, of that message is lost. We truly have a dialogue of the deaf. This, however, is societal and self-induced deafness since there is none so deaf as (s)he who will not hear.

The Jamaican Language Unit at the University of the West Indies, Mona Campus, in collaboration with Newstalk 93.7FM, launched radio news broadcasts in the Jamaican language, on Monday, September 1. These are being aired at 12:15 p.m. and 5:15 p.m. on weekdays. The project is labelled 'Braadkyaas Jamiekan', and is intended to make that broadcasting house the first true bilingual radio broadcaster in Jamaica. Jamaica is, after all, a bilingual country in which two languages, Jamaican and English, are in general use.

It is inappropriate that one of these languages, Jamaican, is currently only used on radio in vox pop-type programmes, eyewitness accounts of events, comedy, discussing popular music and culture, and on call-in shows. The information component of broadcasting must also reach out to those sections of the population who do not know English or do not regularly function in English. The goal of the project is to do this in a measured way, without gimmickry, and in a variety of Jamaican that is authoritative, respectful and effective.

The 'Braadkyaas Jamiekan' project has trained three Jamaican-language broadcasters, Tyane Robinson, Rexandrew Wright and Peterkim Pusey, who are either students or graduates of the UWI. They received training for a period of two months prior to going on air. They had to master the writing system of Jamaican, translation techniques, and technical terms in English that had to be translated accurately into Jamaican.


In addition, when reading, they had to develop techniques for not sounding dramatic, for being clear and for delivering in a manner that was measured and easy to understand. Even though now on air, the broadcasters are still improving, and the Jamaican language word list of news terms is still being developed.

This project represents a model for the other electronic media. 'Braadkyaas Jamiekan' has tested the willingness of the public to accept news broadcasts in Jamaican. The response to the Jamaican-language radio news has generally been positive, and Jamaican has certainly not arrived at the end of civilisation as we know it, as feared by many sceptics. The project is producing a style of Jamaican appropriate to the news, and translations which are elegant, clear and well read.

Braadkyaas Jamiekan does not try to get existing news anchor people to read the news in Jamaican. Rather, the approach has been to create a separate cadre of Jamaican-language broadcasters, trained in every aspect of writing, translating and delivering of on-air material in that language, who would function as anchors.

The next step is to train more Jamaican Language broadcasters who could work with other media houses to make them into genuine bilingual and, as a consequence, truly national broadcasting entities. This would help ensure that the Jamaican language is a language that unites rather than divides.

Hubert Devonish is professor of linguistics in the The Jamaican Language Unit, UWI, Mona. Email feedback to and

CAPTION - Jamaican language is often used in news broadcasts by disgruntled
protesters, such as seen here on August 25 in a demonstration against a
hike in bus fares. But Hubert Devonish says the use of Jamaican by
broadcasters is important in the shift towards viewing Patwa as a bona
fide medium utilised by professionals to inform the public. - Jermaine