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Abbott, Patois Bible and language discrimination

Published:Sunday | March 27, 2011 | 12:00 AM
Diane Abbott
Patois' perceived candour has caused some persons to consider it too coarse for a translation of the Good Book. In photo, a model sports a shirt, designed by Heneka Watkis-Porter, with a Patois message. - File photos

Paul H. Williams, Guest Columnist

Diane Abbott, longstanding black British member of parliament of Jamaican descent, has hopped on to the campaign-against-the-Patois-Bible bandwagon, and in so doing, tempered her disdain towards the heart language of the Jamaican people with patronising phrases such as "do not get me wrong, I am a lover of Patois" and "Patois has its charms and should never die". Yes, Abbott may love Jamaican Creole (JC), but she does not see it as a legitimate language into which the sacred Bible should be translated.

In batting against a Bible written in JC, Abbot, in a January 16, 2011, Sunday Observer article, titled 'Cherish J'can dialect, but please, no Patois Bible', espoused some arguments which belie her intellect and Cambridge University graduate status. From a sociolinguistic perspective, Abbott's opposition to the Patois Bible is born out of ignorance, prejudice and misunderstanding, and the irony is, she actually used the words "ignorance" and "misunderstanding", but in expressing her annoyance at the Patois Bible.

Grounds for opposition

Her opposition to a Patois Bible is based on the following grounds, among others:

"In economic terms, the fact that Jamaicans speak English as their first language is enormously important. English is the language of world commerce."

"It is an insult to ordinary Jamaicans to say that, of all books, they cannot understand the Bible."

"Furthermore, to talk about translating the Bible into Patois entirely misunderstands what Patois is."

"But it is not essentially a written language."

While it is understood that the foregone is Abbott's opinion, to which she has a right, opinions must not be underpinned by misinformation and miseducation. Much of Abbott's commentary, cited above, has no sociolinguistic merit, but before delving into that realm, there are three things Abbott needs to know.

1. The great majority of Jamaicans do not speak English.

2. Yes, many ordinary Jamaicans cannot read the Bible, especially the English of the King James Version, which is not Standard British English, much less Standard Jamaican English. There are problems with many of the words and phrasings, but even more important, many people are at a loss with the metaphoric and poetic language in which it is written.

3. A language is not essentially written; a language is primarily oral and aural.

Abbott's bases for the opposition to the Patois Bible, though not stated explicitly, as most of the newspaper articles, letters to the editor, and their feedback on the subject do, fall within four main categories: A patois Bible would compromise the sanctity of the Bible; Jamaican Creole is not a language; JC is not a language of progress; and JC is not a standard language.

The Bible, being the holy book of Christianity, is held in high esteem as it is said to contain the Word of God, the creator of all living things. It is thus a sacred book for more than one billion people worldwide. Jamaican Creole, the mother tongue of most Jamaicans, is not held in high esteem, and is regarded by many as a 'backward' language. So, when this book, The Bible, is reported to be translated into this 'backward' language, arguments such as "the scripture could be diluted" and "translating The Bible to Patois would undermine the sanctity of the Holy Scripture" are bound to arise.

Yet, these arguments seem to be based on prejudice against JC and, to a certain extent, ignorance about the history of Bible translation. They have not shown how a language, standard or not, can undermine the sacredness of The Bible. Moreover, The Bible, as is, is the product of translation from other languages, and its original meaning has been kept.

Other creole translations

The Bible has also been translated into other Creole languages, including those of Haiti, Dominica, St Lucia, Suriname, and the Dutch Antilles, and these translations are no less sacred than the English versions. In essence, a particular language cannot take away the sacredness of The Bible for the simple reason that no language is more sacred than the other. Aversions to a Patois Bible, then, are born out of social prejudices.

Some letter writers went out on a limb in declaring that JC is not a language, or is a 'broken language'. Well, that limb has been broken. These declarations, from a linguistic perspective, are rooted in ignorance, because those who make them are not cognisant of the nature and functions of a language.

Moreover, the claim that JC is, in fact, a legitimate language was concretised in 2007 when a Jamaican Patois course was introduced at the University of Birmingham, England. Also, the Institute of Linguistics in the United Kingdom has officially declared JC a language, and so has The Jamaican Language Unit at the University of the West Indies, Mona. Then why should people who are not in the fields of language and linguistic determine otherwise?

That JC is not a language of progress is definitely based on prejudice. There is no scientific evidence to prove that speakers of English are more progressive than speakers of JC or any other indigenous language. And if they really are, it might just be because JC speakers are not given the opportunity to be progressive because of who they are - speakers of a language which is considered inferior in many quarters. Moreover, am I to understand that there are no non-progressive speakers of Standard English the world over?

Apart from the fact that some varieties, such as JC, are less syntactically intricate and standardised than others, from a linguistic standpoint, there is nothing to say that one variety is more progressive and prestigious than the other, and that non-standard varieties stymie the progress of their speakers.

Social hierarchy

Invariably, one variety is/was associated with a group that has/had high social status, and the other with a group that sits on the bottom rung of the ladder of social hierarchy.

"There is nothing at all inherent in non-standard varieties which make them inferior ... . In other words, attitudes towards non-standard dialects are attitudes which reflect the social structure of society," Peter Trudgill, the pre-eminent sociolinguist, says in his 1995 book Sociolinguistics - An Introduction to Language and Society. This position is supported by John Edwards in Language, Education and Identity. Edwards says a dialect, which is what JC is commonly called, is a legitimate linguistic system which mirrors and propels group identity. There are no substandard varieties, he notes, though he believes the term non-standard to be apt.

Jamaican Creole may be a legitimate language, but there is not yet any generally accepted way of speaking and writing it. This seems to be the most popular argument against the Patois Bible. Many people do have problems reading and writing JC, and thus will not be able to read the Patois Bible. Therefore, the translation will be a waste of time and money, the detractors are claiming. Yet, those who are of this view seem to misunderstand the purpose of the Patois Bible, which is not seeking to replace the English language versions.

Yet, the translation of The Bible into Jamaican Creole could expedite the standardisation process of JC. University of Technology, Jamaica lecturer Dr R. Anthony Lewis, who said he is "one of the few who have studied and written on translation and creolisation, with an emphasis on Jamaican Creole", is of this view. In an article published in The Sunday Gleaner of June 22, 2008, he says, inter alia: "One of the consequences of translation of a language is its standardisation. Because of the history of European Christian colonisation of much of the world, this process has been achieved primarily through biblical texts ... . Bible translation has played a significant role in transforming hitherto unwritten languages into tools of literacy and education."


In looking at the long history of the link between translation and language standardisation, Lewis cited the work of reformer Martin Luther. In an effort to resist the dominance of Catholic Latin, the prestigious language of the day, over other vernacular languages, Luther helped to translate The Bible from Latin to the dialect of the Saxon Chancellery. That language is now standardised and is known as High German. "Thus, as remarkable as Luther's contribution to the Reformation was, his mark on the process of language standardisation, through translation into a vernacular, was immeasurable," Lewis writes.

In a country of predominantly JC speakers, there is no way the mother tongue is going to disappear from the mouths of its speakers. In fact, JC is being entrenched more and more within the psyche of the people by its widespread use in the electronic mass media. Thus, it is highly recommended that people who wish to see it reserved only for social discourses educate themselves on the nature and functions of language so that they can embrace and have greater appreciation for the language, which is the single most important proponent of their cultural identity.

Abbott's opposition to a Patois Bible is tantamount to language discrimination. And discrimination in any way or form is not what we are striving for in this age of globalisation. She, who has represented the people of Hackney North and Stoke Newington, London, for many years, and a recipient of a human rights award, has compromised her own achievements when she demeans the language spoken by Jamaicans at home and in the diaspora.

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