Jamaican Creole vs English – Not an Either/Or Debate

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I am flattered by (Antonn Brown’s) comparison to Kadene, and I wish that I had her multilingual skills, cosmopolitan erudition, and analytical sharpness. Rest assured, however, that I am no sock puppet for Ms. Porter. Now let me address your riposte.

Languages are the products of human agency; they do what we allow them to do, so it is entirely possible for Jamaican scientists working with linguists and translators to translate complex scientific concepts into Jamaican Creole. I am not a scientist nor a translator, so I am not going to fall into the trap of trying to produce a JC translation of the general principle of relativity or the laws of thermodynamics. The non-existence of JC versions of these laws simply attests to the exclusion of JC as a medium of academic discourse, rather than to JC’s inability to articulate scientific concepts. The same applies to legal principles.

Modern scientific and legal discourses are specialized registers that have evolved within particular educational, institutional, professional, and social frameworks that privilege standard languages. Even highly educated lay persons find it difficult to understand the letter if not the spirit of the law, but difficulty of comprehension is often due to the professional jargon rather than actual conceptual difficulty.

Concepts can be unpacked and translated into other languages, but JC with its history of exclusion from academia and the formal discourses of law, etc. will possess a smaller lexical repertoire to designate concepts. This is where the point about borrowing comes in, not as a rhetorical red herring, but rather to indicate the tactics and strategies available to marginalized forms of expression like JC.  I notice that you haven’t laid out “the ostensible evidence” which “belies” my claim that JC participates in this universal practice of  lexical borrowing,  but I will certainly address the evidence when you do so.

Citing sources is actually the easy part where this is concerned.  See the following reading list for the study of creole languages in general and Jamaican Creole in particular. Peter Roberts does a rather good job of explaining the histories of the language continuum and language politics in the Caribbean, and Pauline Christie addresses all of the issues that have been raised in this forum and others about the role of Jamaican Creole in formal education.  Velma Pollard sketches a pedagogical strategy for using JC to teach Standard English.  You will note that these scholars subscribe to the same definitions of JC as a language, and they also provide reams of evidence based on empirical research.
Dell Hymes, Pidginization and Creolization of Languages (Cambridge UP, 1971)
John Holm, Pidgins and Creoles. 2Vols. (Cambridge University Press, 1988 &1989)
Peter Roberts, West Indians and  their Language (Cambridge UP, 1988)
Peter Roberts, From Oral to Literate Culture (UWI Press, 1997)
Pauline Christie, Language in Jamaica (Arawak Press, 2003)
Pauline Christie, ed. Caribbean Language Issues, Old and New (UWI Press, 1996)
Velma Pollard, Dread Talk: The Language of  Rastafari (1980, rpt. UWI Press,1994)
Velma Pollard, From Jamaican Creole to Standard English: A Handbook for Teachers (1993, rpt. UWI Press, 2003).

Mark Sebba (Contact Languages: Pidgins and Creoles. Palgrave Macmillan, 1997) and Jeff Siegel (The Emergence of Pidgin and Creole Languages. Oxford Up, 2008) are worth reading. They are fairly lucid and accessible for  the lay reader who has no prior knowledge of linguistics. As a brawta, I recommend the pioneering scholar of Caribbean linguistics, the Trinidadian elementary schoolmaster, John Jacob Thomas who had the audacity to publish, in 1869, The Theory and Practice of Creole Grammar , which systematically debunked the notion that the French Creole of the Trinidadian masses was not a language.  And here we are now, in 2008, still going over this tired ground. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Yes, Antonn, what seems indisputable to you is actually in dispute. Languages aren’t articulate, but their speakers are (I take it that we share the same definition of articulate as meaning  the ability to express one’s self clearly and effectively). Languages are complex rule-governed systems of expression that allow individual speakers to be as articulate or inarticulate as they can be based on their mastery of  systemic rules and repertoires.

The example that you gave of listening to the same conversations in English and JC doesn’t tell us whether the same speakers are involved or whether two different sets of speakers are conversing about the same subject. Either way, your conclusion is not reasonable but logically and empirically flawed. If the  same speakers, then the less articulate nature of the JC conversation could just as easily be imputed to the speakers’ relative lack of facility in JC. If it’s the same subject, then one would have to consider whether the JC speakers appear less articulate because they lack knowledge of the subject matter due to their lack of  formal education.

As it stands, you do not give us enough information, so your subjective experience of listening to conversations in English and JC respectively is not a substitute for the painstaking and detailed structural and semantic analysis of languages. Anecdotes can certainly help us to pinpoint certain aspects of phenomena, but anecdotes don’t constitute hard data. With all due respect to your intellectual acumen, I cast my lot with the conclusions arrived at by researchers toiling in the field, assessing numerous data sets and subjecting their work to rigor and scrutiny of peer reviews.

When people say “mi feel a way”, and the meaning is unclear, one has to use the context, body language, overall ethos and mood to arrive at meaning. As a teacher, I know how irritating imprecise expressions and modish phrasing can be, but JC isn’t the only culprit here. I have taught in Canada and the United States and believe me, a lot of  that stuff is out there in the mouths of  Standard English speakers in selective liberal arts colleges.

I am still trying to figure out the basic concept that I am supposed to understand, because I clearly stated that there is a correlation between linguistic and sociocultural realities. My argument is that you address this relation between the linguistic and the cultural in a reductive manner.

You raised the matter of dysfunctional social and cultural realities in order to highlight JC’s inadequacy, and you do this via reductive and absolutist declarations. Here are your own statements:

“Jamaican Creole will never be able to articulate principles and terms of law, science, engineering, and so forth. If a “language” cannot express or describe principles, then it is inferior. I am not suggesting that if there is no word for a particular concept it is inferior. I am stating that the inability to do so makes it extremely limited.

“It is trite that cultural norms that were formed in an era of slavery that are maintained today are now dysfunctional. It is the perpetuation of these cultural norms that keep the black race down. I used to think that the Third World nations were held back by the colonialism and imperialism of the First World. I see things completely differently now. Third World nations live in ways that keep themselves subordinated. Therefore, Third World status is a mix of exploitation and dysfunctional culture.”

Note the nature of your pronouncements on the limitations of Jamaican Creole, and note also how you segue from the declaration of JC’s inferiority to the assertions about  dysfunctional cultural norms. The seamless shift from language to culture, the lack of nuance, and the glittering generalities devoid of historical, geographical and cultural specifics  about the reasons for Black backwardness and Third World status signal the conflation of linguistic and cultural pathologies. 

Nazism’s uniqueness lies precisely in its ruthless application of Europe’s racial and colonial logic to European societies. It coupled this logic with a mercilessly efficient war machine that routinized the concentration camps into veritable death factories.

Genocide and total wars of conquest on an industrial scale were its defining features, and the sheer scale of Hitler’s bloody enterprise guarantees its horrific exceptionalism in the annals of history. But this exceptionalism is only exceptional because of the Nazi refusal to stick to the script which assigned the status of untermenschen to non-Europeans. For the Nazis, all outside their precious racial and ideological circle were subhuman, and they deployed all the tactics and strategies of European colonial and imperial repression to drench Europe in six nightmarish years of blitzkrieg, blood and genocide.

My point about Nazism isn’t original. It was first made by the great Martinican writer, Aime Cesaire, in his searing anti-colonial polemic, Discourse on Colonialism (1955), and he used it to basically argue that Hitler and the Third Reich represented the ultimate blowback from colonialism.

Re my comments about discussing culture in another post, I certainly did not intend to come across as opposing your freedom to discuss whatever you want, but the topic is so interesting and rich, that it would really make sense to have a more extended discussion in a separate post.

Antonn, I agree with many of your concerns. Jamaicans must learn English as a global lingua franca, and the education system has to be fixed. Teaching in JC is not a magic bullet but neither is teaching in English. We also have to move from the stultifying rote learning and  exam-oriented models that do not encourage critical thinking and higher order cognitive skills.

I strongly support all your suggestions for systemic changes across the board in teaching, teacher preparation, and infrastructure. We strongly differ, however, on JC as a language and its potential as a medium of  formal instruction. I don’t see the JC/English issue in terms of either/or but rather as both/and. 

Thanks for the civil discussion and I look forward to engaging in more dialogue. Hopefully as we articulate our differences, we will also find our common ground as we seek solutions to the perpetual state of crisis gripping contemporary Jamaica.