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Patois good only for fun and games

Published:Wednesday | July 10, 2013 | 12:00 AM
Mark Harris

As a therapeutic, side-splitting stress reducer in Jamaica, Patois reigns supreme. There is no match. Colloquially, it is such an effective medium of communication - up to a certain level.

However, while it is true that English, according to Louise Bennett, "spring from dialect", English acquired its current wide usage largely by having evolved from a dialect into a highly versatile, effective cosmopolitan tool of communication.

Parochial vernaculars, on the other hand, have a narrow application and dependability; hence their limited use in commercial, scientific, and academic pursuits.

Today, the globally accepted standardised mode of communication is English. It is the accepted language of international commerce and navigation. Most (or all) major academic journals refuse submissions in any other language.

Learn it or perish. For example, how would a concept such as the biological essentiality of trace elements, in Patois, be uploaded to a scientific journal? Such communication hurdles can present serious implications for research and development, and, in the long term, hinder job creation.

Speech and jobs

December 2012: Barack Obama tells supporters in a small town: "You took this campaign and made it of your own and you organised yourselves block by block ... ." Less capable speakers would have unwittingly omitted the 'of' in that sentence (compare I like when it rains (wrong) with I like it when it rains).

It is precise, moving speech that won Obama the presidency. Imprecise speech can be misleading, and every country/region has its own brand. Examples are: (1) 'I done done it.' (I have done it), or 'nucular' (nuclear): USA Hillbilly talk; (2) 'our t'eme song' (our theme song): (is that team song or theme song?) Jamaica, Africa; (3) 'How much people?' (How many people): Jamaica; (4) 'yous' (Australian Outback, Cockney); 'all yu' (Eastern Caribbean).

Most will never be president; yet in the currently tough global job market, there is no substitute for precision and lucidity of speech.

Business and jobs

Jamaican job seekers are increasingly looking to overseas territories as the Jamaican economy struggles. But in the US, England, France, Australia, etc., the locals view incorrect English very harshly.

They are much more likely to assist a well-spoken person (financially and otherwise) compared to one with careless speech. In their judgement, saying 'dekstop' rather than 'desktop' is sloppy (as it is anywhere) and irritating, and even with an interviewee's excellent transcripts, it is a harbinger to the employer, of future carelessness.

Creole speakers are continually shocked to discover that in such countries, the only persons who do not regard Creole as broken English are the Creole speakers themselves. Patois-Creole draws an overseas reaction totally opposite to the reverence it enjoys in Jamaica. Saying "she play beautiful", "worl' champion", "I must has to do it" or "he want to know", in any one of the above developed countries immediately relegates the speaker to the 'illiterate-or-uneducated' category.


Seeing that these are the countries where most Jamaicans go to seek jobs, it is incredibly sensible to practise one's spoken Standard English years in advance to achieve spontaneous competence.

Even the telephone companies in Jamaica which seemingly seek the support of the masses - their biggest profit base - are smart enough to choose Standard English in all their business transactions, pre-recorded or live. Why? Less confusion = higher profits (and fewer court cases). They know, for example, that asking the customer "Ho' much?" (meaning how many telephones do you want), could either imply the number of telephones, or the price range of the customer's interest, possibly leading to an incorrect delivery of a single, hugely expensive handset.

Further, most of their poorest, least-educated customers in Jamaica use expensive cell phones and understand all the messages dispensed in Standard English, tapping into Free Nights and all the other perks, etc.

In currently difficult economic conditions, would jobless Jamaicans not be better served if money (for all those thousands of piled up unused Patois Bibles, etc.) is used to increase their competence in written and spoken Standard English? Would not this language step facilitate aggressive marketing of indigenous Jamaican products? Is this not better than spending scarce resources on teaching and promoting Patois in schools?

Both Patois and Standard English are part of Jamaica's heritage; both have their respective best-fit places: one for entertainment, stress relief and the local medium of communication for many (in which most or all Jamaicans are already competent), the other for jobs and economic advancement. Choose well. A rolling stone gathers no moss.

Mark Harris is professor of the College of Natural & Applied Sciences, NCU. Email feedback to and