A Wah?

We Jamaicans are confused about matters relating to our patois. We are unsure of how to position it, whether to officially acknowledge it as part of our national identity or to keep it in its place in a box marked “broken English”. Some of us blame its widespread use for the diminishing CXC passes in English, and in fiery protest call for a ban or containment of its use in schools. In asking a new CXC level student to correct the expression “A wah?”, one teacher recruited from overseas was horrified to hear “Is what that?” prompting her realization that even the basic syntactic rules of Standard English were blurred in the minds of her students. But how to correct the perceptions that exist? How to advocate the necessity of learning Standard English without diminishing the importance of our Patois and mother tongue of the majority? Few of us seem to realize that what we now hold up as “Standard English” was in its infancy one of hundreds of the regional dialects spoken in England, and like our Patois, went through similar rites of passage before a single form emerged, or was chosen, as the standard.

Two waves of invasion wrought major change on the Old English dialects brought to the British Isles by Germanic settlers and invading Roman auxiliary troops; the 8th and 9th centuries saw colonization by language speakers of the Scandinavian branch of the family of Germanic languages, and in the 11th century with the invasion and occupation of the Normans, the Romance branch of European languages was infused into the existing Germanic (Anglo-Saxon) core. The term “Romance” here does not pertain to matters of the heart, but to the Vulgar Latin, the Roman language of settlers, soldiers and merchants, not to be confused with classical Latin used by Roman intellectuals. The earlier introduction of Christianity with its wave of classical Latin and Greek did not have much impact on the spoken language then, since these language forms were used exclusively in liturgical circles.

Since the language of the aristocratic Normans entered the existing spoken Germanic English dialects through governments and the royal court, it was understandable that it would enjoy an elevated social status, relegating the other varieties to inferiority, and as dialects of common and coarse folk. However, the Anglo-Saxon dialects absorbed many foreign words, increasing their vocabulary by leaps and bounds, and over a 300 year period, while cohabitation played havoc with the sharp distinctions between the Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman, their basic class distinctions remained. The purer French-based dialects retained their prestige through the language of diplomacy, and to this day the French entries into English are still associated with more formality, compared to those Germanic with the same basic meaning. Nowhere is this more distinct than with the words describing bodily functions and their connotations. Since Saxon words were used mostly by the vulgaris, Latin for the common (unlearned) people, the snobbery of the French frowned on their use, and the very word “vulgar” adopted a pejorative connotation of ‘coarseness’. These Germanic words have remained “vulgar” to this day through what we now call four-letter words, perpetrating and perpetuating the prejudices of French aristocracy. Thus “urinate”, “defecate” and “copulate” are socially acceptable while their four-letter Saxon counterparts are still considered outcasts.

While the language of the royal court prevailed, and the expression “the Queen’s English” goes back to the times when the language of the monarch was used as the standard in speech and writing, just look at English today. The language of the court itself eventually became influenced by the “inferior” dialects through literary and dramatic productions, and it is interesting to note that major literary works prior to English standardization, as in the case of Shakespeare, employed much of the vernacular of the day, thus helping to shape modern English usage. The language form that emerged has drawn its vocabulary from many of the dialects in use around it through each stage of development.

Our colorful Jamaican Patois is perhaps going through its own historical middle passage, where after years of pondering over its standardization, making it a national language, or one of two official languages, we still have not taken any definitive action, and the language is still accorded the lowly status of the Anglo-Saxon as it contended with the Anglo-French. For as long as we entertain the notion that this is not a valid language with its own set of rules, and is merely “broken English”, we will continue to experience the same frustrations with the low number of passes in the Caribbean Examination Council (CXC) school leaving tests, and the inability of the masses to enter the global sphere of communication and commerce.

Our vernacular needs to be recognized as a mode of communication distinct from Jamaican Standard English, even with much of its vocabulary English-based. If there is this recognition, then the English standard will be taught as a second language and not as though it is the mother tongue. Back in the day Standard English was taught at school much like any other foreign language, students were given the opportunity to be immersed in it. Teachers spoke it impeccably to assist with its mastery, and collaboration by the the newspapers and radio programmes reinforced the lessons. Although some parents insisted on Standard English at home, from the angle of “speaking properly”, the vernacuar itself was never forsaken; speakers employed ‘code-switching’, as there was an unwritten code about when and to whom it should be spoken, establishing from an early stage the fact that there were two distinct modes of communication within the student’s grasp. In our day we mastered both forms.

Nowadays the average student has few means of being immersed in Standard English, as there is no concerted effort to maintain a clear distinction between both language forms. The local newspapers seem to be struggling to maintain the standard, and save for the news items and select programmes, the airwaves produce a steady diet of mesolectal fare, futher blurring the lines between the two.

How do we expect our young CXC candidates to be proficient in the use of the English language if it is not being taught and reinforced? At what point are the basic rules of English grammar being taught to them? Many of them neither hear it at home nor from their teachers, and as major works of English literature are gradually disappearing from their curricula, how do we expect them to compete on an international level with others having a broader frame of reference? As any student of foreign languages will tell you, “If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it”, meaning that proficiency in any language can only be achieved through practice. Part of the audio-visual method of teaching a second language involves hours of practice, listening and reproducing the same sounds until they are perfected. So our students who have no opportunities to practise speaking Standard English are at a distinct disadvantage, and we will continue to fight a losing battle in preparing them to communicate with the world.

I acknowledge that we are trapped by the existing language continuum which places the Patois as the basilect at one extreme, with the Jamaican Standard English as the acrolect at the other, with the mesolect in between. It may be in truth the mesolectal levels which now masquerade as our Standard English, further leading us to believe there is no need to clearly distinguish between both extremes. I believe that the key to regaining the importance of learning Standard English is to give equal prominence to our Patois, not only through codification and standardization, but lifting it to the level of national language, thus removing the social stigma attached to its use. As clearer delineations are drawn in comparison to the Standard English, there will be an acknowledgement of the coexistence of two distinct languages, and the realisation that we can become truly bilingual. After we clear the hurdle of awarding the Patois national language status, the next level may be to make it one of two official languages.

The decision to give our Patois national language status will only prompt a more intensive and thorough approach to both teaching and learning English. Then it will be made easier for the student who asks: “A wah, a wah, a wah?” to be able to correctly translate this as “What is it?”, realizing that both expressions are of equal merit. Perhaps the foreign teacher will realize it too.


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