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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

This Week in Patois

Posted by on Wed, May 11, 2011 at 11:16 AM

Jamaica is having a big debate about whether to teach patois in its schools. A refrain in the articles about the situation in the Jamaican Gleaner say: "The language I speak, I cannot write; the language I write, I cannot speak."

Professor and self-described "public intellectual" Carolyn Cooper has written a series of columns supporting patois—written in patois. In "Dear God, Is Me, Bruce," she writes a prayer from the prime minister, arguing that when Jamaicans talk to their God, they talk in patois. The first paragraph:

NO BOTHER mek mi get ignorant, yaa, Maasa. How yu mean, "Which Bruce?" Is how much 'Bruce' yu know so, a bawl to yu morning, noon an night a beg fi deliverance? Cho, man, no treat mi so bad. Mi cyaan tek di crosses. Tongue cannot tell. Di people dem all bout dis a wash dem mout pon mi. Yu no see di joke dem pon di Internet? Dem have one wid Hitler a gwaan like seh im a mi. Wat a liberty! Yu fi hear di breed a ting dem im a seh bout Tivoli. Mi shame so til. An yu a go tun pon mi to?

And that pissed some people off. Here's a letter to the Gleaner (which, by the way, is an awesome name for a newspaper):

Talk about blinded by self-importance! The 'Great Ideator' has now enlisted none other than the GREAT CREATOR on her side!! 'Even God speaks patois' thunders the headline, but what follows is nothing short of shameful! Apart from being most irreverent, it is a sloppy piece of journalism. Her attempts to write in her favourite second language did little more than confirm the fact that Patois is no more than broken, misspelt English, despite her attempts to use a 'K' where most writers of Patois would use a 'C', in a futile attempt to camouflage its origins. What I cannot understand is what would drive someone to such extremes for such an unworthy quest. Such zeal correctly applied could accomplish a great good.

I am, etc.,

Carlton A. Reynolds

All of the letters to the Gleaner seem to end with "I am, etc."

In the end, it doesn't really matter whether or not the Jamaican schools teach in patois. The history of language shows that the state cannot control it—in Spain, Franco tried to kill Catalan (jailing people who spoke it, etc.) but he failed. Attempts to save traditional Irish by teaching it in school have had small impact on the day-to-day speech of young people. Irish is fading in the Gaeltacht but a new kind of hybrid Irish—call it Irish patois—is rising in the cities. But traditional Irish speakers and new/urban Irish speakers have trouble understanding each other.

All of which is to say: languages live and die by their own logic. States cannot promote them and states cannot crush them. So teach patois or not, Jamaica: patois will do what patois will do.

And now, please enjoy "Fake Patois" by Das Racist. ("Whatchuknow 'bout Shuan Bridgmohan? Whatchuknow 'bout Shuan Bridgmohan? First Jamaican in the Kentucky Derby, first Jamaican in the Kentucky Derby.")


Comments (23) RSS

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Brian Geoghagan 1
This is a great song by Eek A Mouse that mentions the Gleaner.…

Posted by Brian Geoghagan on May 11, 2011 at 11:18 AM · Report this
Unregistered User 2
you know da kine
Posted by Unregistered User on May 11, 2011 at 11:24 AM · Report this
Fnarf 3
I believe "I am, etc." stands for "I am as always your obedient servant" or something close. It's how folks closed letters before the uncouth "sincerely yours" caught on in the nineteenth century (which The Gleaner is apparently scheduled to catch up with in another hundred years or so). Many, many letters of the time end with the abbreviation "yr obt svt".
Posted by Fnarf on May 11, 2011 at 11:27 AM · Report this
Well, I'll be ending all my letters and emails "yr obt svt" from now on.
Posted by Brendan Kiley on May 11, 2011 at 11:28 AM · Report this
Ah Brendan,
There are some counter examples to this- notably Hebrew and Turkish, the later being a very state controlled language.
The French Academy does an ok job of contolling language as well.
In the main though I agree.
Welcome back!
Posted by Gabe Os on May 11, 2011 at 11:30 AM · Report this
Steven Bradford 6
Aren't all the Romance languages the Patois descendants of Latin?
Posted by Steven Bradford on May 11, 2011 at 11:56 AM · Report this
Hey Gabe Os! You know, I've named every computer I've ever had after you... And now I have a REAL Gabe Os!

Whatever happened to Figsy?
Posted by Brendan Kiley on May 11, 2011 at 12:00 PM · Report this
Fifty-Two-Eighty 8
Next thing you know, they'll be wanting "TXT" taught in schools.
Posted by Fifty-Two-Eighty on May 11, 2011 at 12:03 PM · Report this
Ho, brah
Posted by The CHZA on May 11, 2011 at 12:12 PM · Report this
Irena 10
The state can most definitely crush a language. Many First Nations languages are dead or dying because of violent colonial interference (beating and shaming a whole generation of kids for speaking their own language, or simply killing, deliberately or inadvertently, the people who speak it). Making government-funded classes available so they and their children can relearn them is a way of bringing them back to life.

Saying "states cannot crush them" and they "die by their own logic" ignores the role of colonial governments in the disappearance of aboriginal languages.
Posted by Irena on May 11, 2011 at 12:14 PM · Report this
I would argue, Irena, that colonial quashing of aboriginal languages is very real, but is a function of social/economic/cultural/biological pressures and not legislation by any government. States can make languages illegal, but that doesn't kill languages. Other things do.
Posted by Brendan Kiley on May 11, 2011 at 12:20 PM · Report this
Finland spends a tremendous amount of government time/effort supporting its crazy language, through arts funding (Finnish opera is a huge deal) and if I remember right, free or dirt-cheap higher education for Finnish speakers, even those with dual citizenship with other countries (incentive for Finn-Americans to keep the language alive). I think of it as an example of the state getting ahead of the game in concerns about the language dying out, since there's just not that many people in Finland and their language is batty.
Posted by alight on May 11, 2011 at 12:35 PM · Report this
Some Old Nobodaddy Logged In 13
@11 Your Irish example is still deeply flawed. Why does Irish need to be "saved" in the first place? Because the State most definitely controlled it, in an attempt to eradicate it. A much better example for you to use would be Afrikaans.
Posted by Some Old Nobodaddy Logged In on May 11, 2011 at 1:03 PM · Report this
Some Old Nobodaddy Logged In 14
BTW, how do you say "We're sub-human cretins when it comes to the treatment of gays & lesbians" in Jamaican patios?
Posted by Some Old Nobodaddy Logged In on May 11, 2011 at 1:05 PM · Report this
"languages live and die by their own logic. States cannot promote them and states cannot crush them."

What did they speak in Europe before Latin?
Posted by A Bunch Of Languages Nobody Speaks Anymore on May 11, 2011 at 1:25 PM · Report this
Max Solomon 16
i can understand it when i hear it but not when i read it!
Posted by Max Solomon on May 11, 2011 at 1:27 PM · Report this
OK, forgive my ignorance here but based on that one paragraph of written Patois it seems like it's just a Jamaican equivalent of Ebonics. I don't want to quash anyones ethnic heritage or anything but why would schools ever teach an intentionally misspelled and mis-grammared version of a language.

Speak whatever crazy shit you want among your family and friends but school is there to teach you the correct way of doing something. That's like teaching creationism in schools. Sure, you can believe and say whatever crazy crap you want but don't teach it in school.
Posted by Root on May 11, 2011 at 1:55 PM · Report this

"Ebonics" is not a patois.
Posted by educate yourself or remain ignorant forever on May 11, 2011 at 2:50 PM · Report this
I live in Dublin. You take any random person off the street and while they will most likely have studied irish in school for about 13 of 14 years at primary and secondary level, they probably won't know more than a handful of irish phrases.
Posted by Ben Weldon on May 11, 2011 at 2:54 PM · Report this
@10, I wholeheartedly agree. States can absolutely crush languages, through many kinds of direct and indirect violence. Languages develop and die not through "natural" processes but through social ones, which include coercion.
Posted by Alex76 on May 11, 2011 at 3:56 PM · Report this
Irena 21
@11: I respectfully disagree, Brendan. You said languages "die by their own logic". That's just not true. Saying "States can make languages illegal, but that doesn't kill languages. Other things do" is akin to saying Princip didn't kill Franz Ferdinand, the bullet did; therefore Ferdinand died "by his own logic" because he failed to successfully negotiate its impact.
Posted by Irena on May 11, 2011 at 8:20 PM · Report this
@ 21. I respectfully submit that your FF metaphor is specious. When I say that languages die by their own logic (which is inaccurate and clumsy phrasing, I admit), I mean that languages live and die by evolutionary pressures. A state cannot legislate a language away any more than the state of North Carolina can legislate away kudzu (though it's tried).

A state's policies may place an evolutionary pressure on a language, but there are so many cases (from Catalan to Navajo) where the state has totally failed to crush a language, despite the state's best efforts. And other cases where the state tries to keep a language alive and totally fails. So: states do not control languages, though they try. And the government of Jamaica cannot make patois this or that—only the people of Jamaica can.
Posted by Brendan Kiley on May 11, 2011 at 9:28 PM · Report this
Irena 23
@22: I concur, amid this downpour of respect, that state control of language is not absolute, and that in the general terms of your argument, languages can languish or thrive despite government efforts to destroy or promote them. I also appreciate your admission that your inaccurate phrasing failed to account for specific occasions when state-backed "evolutionary pressures" caused the decline or disappearance of particular languages. Or at least I'll take it as an admission of that, and accept it most graciously.

I remain your humble servant, of course, etc.

Posted by Irena on May 12, 2011 at 12:47 PM · Report this

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