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Earl McKenzie | A different view of the Patois-English debate

Published:Tuesday | January 21, 2020 | 12:00 AMEarl McKenzie/Guest Columnist

I have refrained from entering the debate about the place in our society for the restructured English, influenced by some African grammars, that is called by a variety of names, is spoken by most Jamaicans, and to which we are understandably very emotionally attached. But I have finally decided to add a few ideas to the discussion.

To make it into an official language would throw the country into such an enormous and costly turmoil of governance and everyday functioning in areas such as law, the civil service, industry and commerce, diplomacy and others, that this would be a horrendous price to pay for national sentimentalism. It is hard to see how such a move could contribute to the country’s economic and social progress.

There are other perspectives on this issue apart from linguistics and its philosophy.

As far as education is concerned, I think the linguists are right that in the teaching of English, comparing the structure (grammar) of ‘Jamiekan’ (the name for it that I prefer) and that of English can help students understand the differences between the two, and therefore help advancing the learning of the latter, while respecting and appreciating the educational value of the former. I think this should be done at all levels where English is taught.

Then there is the literary perspective which is related to, but not restricted to, education. Most languages are respected because of the quality and influence of the literatures written in them. Jamiekan has the beginnings of such a literature in the writings of Claude McKay, Louise Bennett, dub poets and others. To date, this literature does not have the world recognition of the music of Bob Marley or the sprinting of Usain Bolt. But if our writers are encouraged to write in it, this could happen in the future.

There is also the perspective of anthropology with its interest in the links between language and culture. Every society has a worldview which is partly manifested in its language. This worldview is often described as the ‘mind’ of that society or region. You will therefore find books with titles like ‘The Mind of Africa’ or ‘The Mind of China’ and so on. So there is a Mind of Jamaica that is partly revealed in Jamiekan. Indeed, there is a view that the characteristics of a language can be found in the characteristics of the society that created it.

Widen minds

So is Jamaica largely a Patwah island and partly an English island? Jamaica and the world could benefit from discovering what Jamiekan reveals about the Jamaican mind. But if Wittgenstein is right that “the limits of my language are the limits of my world”, we would do well to widen our minds beyond Jamiekan.

Then there is the perspective of the philosophy of language, with its focus on the concept of meaning, whether in the workings of logic and information technology, which are closely linked, or the meanings of words in ‘Di Jamiekan Nyuu Testament’ (The Jamaican New Testament).

Mastery of English can put us in touch with nearly every country on earth, give us access to the Fourth Industrial Revolution that is now taking place, including access to intellectual property, dubbed the new wealth of the present and the future. Deep thought has to be given to what role, if any, Jamiekan can play in these important developments.

Most Jamaican place names are in English, with a very small number in Jamiekan. English is the language with which we claim and identify with our landscape. But we speak English with a Jamiekan accent, and in my view this is a central part of our national heritage.

Earl McKenzie is a former lecturer in philosophy at The University of the West Indies, Mona. Email feedback to