The Patois Bible Project: cui bono?

The Bible Society of the West Indies and Wycliffe Bible Translators Caribbean together with the University of the West Indies are to be highly commended for undertaking a project to translate the Bible into our Jamaican Creole and mother tongue, the host of naysayers notwithstanding.

For too long we have fooled ourselves into believing that Standard English, the nation’s official language, is merely an elevated version of the primary language of the masses. This has resulted in untold damage to many elementary level students, by denying them the tutorial methods needed to grasp the rudiments of a language they neither practice, nor often hear.

Since literary endeavors are widely seen as heralding standardization of even obscure dialects, this initiative should be expected to be of great benefit as Jamaica struggles to promote literacy in English. There is no denying the fact that the bible is the most widely read and most translated literary work in the world, with at least one of its books having been rendered into 2,400 of the 6,900 listed in the database of world languages. With Jamaica’s churches per square mile ratio, it may well be arguably the most widely quoted (not necessarily the most widely read) literary work on the island, This literally begs the question: could a lack of comprehension be the reason the island’s heightened religiosity has not been translated into strong moral values?

This ambitious project would add “fi wi langwij” to the collection, increasing linguistic awareness, and placing the mother tongue and the “language of the heart” on the road to nationalization, its prominence giving rise to an explosion of literary activity, such as occurs with standardization of any language. Those who would normally be reluctant to read, or unable to understand literature in a language outside their comfort zone may be more inclined to embrace literary works in a form in which they are fluent.

With our Creole dialect standardized, it may begin to dawn on us that “patwa” is indeed a language distinct from Standard English and not as some would prefer to think, just “broken English”. Perhaps then we will see the clear line(s) of demarcation between the two, and understand the importance of teaching English grammar in schools as it is taught to speakers who do not have English as their mother tongue. Recognition of “patwa” will only serve to heighten our awareness that we need to be bilingual, since no matter where we stand on the language continuum, we blissfully and proudly tell ourselves and others that we are English-speakers.

As we bemoan the failing grades of high school students in English language, it should be understood that their literary rendition of English may be heavily influenced by what they hear and speak. Thus, if there is no consistent exposure to Standard English, especially through the public media, they will remain imprisoned somewhere between both language forms, frustrating their ability to communicate on a global level and maintaining the pitiful statistics of illiteracy.

Nowhere is this more troubling, than for immigrant students to northern metropoles who are fluent in “patwa” but have only a feeble grasp of English. They are thrown into classes with students who may have been exposed to a form of English closer to the standard of the host country, causing the “patwa” speakers to lag behind in English comprehension and Language Arts simply because they are not familiar with the new language, and lack the confidence to express themselves outside their familiar milieu.

Many of those who profess to speak English have no idea of the rules that govern it, and are hardly concerned with what is considered the subject, object, or subordinate clause in a sentence. The media are not without blame. It is unforgivable that the Gleaner, the island’s most widely read daily newspaper, in its June 20 editorial titled “Where does the PNP stand?” refers to the personal pronoun ‘we’ as the “third person plural”. Amazingly, this newspaper which boasts the highest language mentorship of high school students neglected to identify and post a correction of the error. And this was no printer’s imp.

Many of us have been fortunate to have achieved fluency in both language forms from an early age, albeit under duress and the politically incorrect exhortation to “speak properly”. But today’s disadvantaged youth do not have that luxury, for they neither hear it in the home nor at school, neither on the streets, nor with any consistency, through the media. Therefore it must be taught as a foreign language.

The Bible translators, in fulfilling their mission to “see a bible translation program in progress in a language that speaks to the heart”, may very well be the catalysts in removing the inferior social status ascribed to the language of the majority, while enabling us to recognize its distinctions and appreciate it as our own, in order to acknowledge the necessity for communication in English with the rest of the world. Instead of decrying the “waste” of the J$65 million that will not come from the public purse, the opponents of this venture should consider the gains to be reaped in a population that is still stuttering in global communication.

The Patois Bible Project did not begin a day too soon.

Caption: After her hard work helping in the recognition of Jamaican language, Miss Lou must smile down at the work of the Bible Society.

     

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