Jamaica Gleaner
Published: Monday | December 10, 2012
Home : Commentary
Unnu kyan reed Patwa?
Garth A. Rattray, Contributor

For well over 20 years, I have been genuinely trying to understand the persistent and concerted push, especially from certain academia, for the standardisation and elevation of our native dialect.

Much of my formative years were spent in a poor community, so I knew Jamaican Patois (Patwa) very well. However, although our parents also knew Patwa better than us, the children, they always insisted that we learnt and practised the proper way of speaking the English language and discouraged the use of dialect.

Even as little children, we could clearly see our parents' wisdom in making us proficient in standard English so that we would be able to communicate with Anglophones anywhere. They wanted us to have no language handicap, barrier or impediment to taking examinations at any level; no problem with filling out forms or reading anything written in English; no problem with the English language if we travelled; no problem with public speaking; and no problem landing jobs.

Some people insist that Patwa is not just broken English (because there are a few fragments of other languages in it); some say that it's a dialect; and others go so far as to call it a language. As far as I am concerned, the dialect has been here, is here and will be here for a very long time to come. I see nothing wrong with just leaving it as it is and allowing it to evolve (if it will) all on its own.

Studying it in order to understand it is one thing - but micro-dissecting it, standardising it, conjugating it, authoritatively providing phonetic spellings for it (as if that isn't the only way to attempt spelling non-standard words), saying that the vowel system contained in our Jamaican dialect is an expansion (and an extremely wide one at that) of the basic five-vowel system in English all seems rather redundant to me.

And now, after several years of hard work and millions of dollars, the Patois Bible has been completed and has been named Di Jamiekan Nyuu Testiment. Okay, I find this very strange. Why is it 'Jamiekan'? Is that really necessary? Won't plain old 'Jamaican' do? Don't we all understand it as is? Is 'Jamiekan' the correct Patwa for Jamaican? I don't think so. And, will you remember how to spell J-a-m-i-e-k-a-n?

What about 'nyuu'? Who decided that Patwa should spell it that way? What's wrong with plain old 'new'?

Better to hear than read

Patwa is extremely difficult to read. To my way of thinking, it takes proficiency of the English language to read and understand Patwa. Being barely English-literate or totally English-illiterate will not allow you to read Patwa.

I admire the effort put into the Patwa Bible, but it would be far better if it were an audio Bible. Reading the Patwa Bible to a congregation will be condescending. I think that the book will be a curiosity and a novelty, but will remain impractical.

I have never seen, read or heard even one single (already) educated person advocating the widespread use of Patwa by using Patwa to make their point. Isn't that hypocritical? They already have their education, good jobs, status, audience and (sometimes) accolades because they are English-proficient. Why relegate others to lesser achievements/statuses?

There is nothing wrong with accepting Patwa for what it is - dialect that is appropriate at the right time and place. However, in this age of globalisation, when we must interface with so many various peoples, what we need is more effort at teaching standard English.

Garth A. Rattray is a medical doctor with a family practice. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and garthrattray@gmail.com

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