Sun | Jun 13, 2021

'Broken' English?

Published:Friday | June 1, 2012 | 12:00 AM
Keith Noel

Keith Noel, Contributor

In Jamaica, the debate continues about the status of Patois.

There are many persons in positions of prominence in society - and that includes educators - who firmly believe that if the educational system conferred any respectability to the 'dialect', it would impede the academic growth of students.

There is a logic to it. We were taught that this 'Patois' is 'broken English'. If this is so, it makes absolutely no sense to legitimise a 'broken' form of the language. Our students would have greater difficulty in dealing with the pure 'unbroken' form of the language, if the 'broken' form were afforded the same respect. The confusion that would ensue would condemn our students to forever flounder in a linguistic mire.

The linguists, historians and sociologists at the University of the West Indies have for years been saying that all of this is wrong. They claim that the language the vast majority of Jamaicans learn between birth and their first year of school is not a 'broken' form of English, but a language of its own. They have identified how it evolved and shown that its growth and development are similar to that of most international languages.

They claim that this 'nation language' of ours is no more 'broken English' than early English was 'broken Anglo-Saxon' or 'broken Latin' or even 'broken Norman French'. These languages were the parent languages of English in a similar way to which English is a parent language of the one most of us speak.

Because the word 'patois' has a specific meaning which does not correctly describe this nation language of ours, some of these persons have renamed our language 'Patwa' in order to specifically identify it. They argue that the sooner we recognise what all their research has revealed, the better it would be for all of us.

This research has been validated, and in some Caribbean countries it has begun to impact their education systems. Research has shown that this has not so far resulted in any negative development in their students' academic growth.

But in Jamaica, the debate continues.

Some have scoffed at the idea of Patwa being acceptable as a language. The argument is that no lofty thought or anything truly creative can be expressed in this 'broken' language has been answered by poets like Dennis Scott, Mikey Smith, Louise Bennett-Coverley and Linton 'Kwesi' Johnson.

It has been claimed that, because the language shares some of the vocabulary of the parent language, it 'proves' that Patwa is but a 'branch' - and a broken branch at that - of English. But this is how language works. Many words in English were taken wholesale from French. I remember how once, tongue in cheek, I argued that I could give a number of risque jokes about the nouveau riche at a certain rendezvous!

Learning from neighbours

But in Jamaica, the debate continues. It is claimed that if Patwa is given legitimacy, it would hinder the learning of English. Apparently, we are different from those people all over the world whose children grow up learning two similar languages and become proficient at both because these countries, accepting the linguistic situation, crafted the education system accordingly.

What is most disconcerting is that the people in the French and Dutch Caribbean have gone so far ahead of us. The debate does not seem to exist in St Lucia and Dominica where the nation language is 'Kweyol' (note their spelling of the word, which identified it specifically). Not only do these people accept it as a language, but they actually celebrate a day called 'Journen Kweyol', or 'Creole Day'. This day recognises the language as such and identifies it with the rest of their ancestral and folk culture. It actually marks the first full day when the media broadcast in this language - news and all.

We nah reach deh so yet!

And yet the children from St Lucia have consistently done well in English in CSEC. In fact, in the past, they have produced top performers in this and other subjects.

But in Jamaica, the debate continues!

Ah wah?

Keith Noel is an educator. Email feedback to