Since the news of the project to translate the Bible into Jamaican Creole, many have argued about the legitimacy of Jamaican as a language. Some contend that it is a dialect. A dialect is a regional variation of a standard. Jamaican is not a regional variation of English. Jamaican has a different set of rules about grammar.
The argument of limited number of words in the vocabulary is not moot. When a Jamaican says a woman is “pretty pretty” to mean extremely beautiful, the point is not whether English has more words to amplify beauty but that in our vernacular there are rules for the comparative that stand on their own. So to use another example, we can have incorrect Creole: “The boys dem” is incorrect. “The boy dem” is correct.
There are also those who are concerned about spelling variations. Standardization will follow documentation and one can see no better way to begin than with the Bible which has the widest appeal among Jamaicans, from Ras Tafari to college principal.
All languages have gone through the process to arrive at a standard. Chaucer’s English was quite different to Shakespeare’s. If you should visit the better preserved cemeteries in Jamaica and read headstones from the 1600s and 1700s you’d be surprised at the variation of spelling from lack of standards. Even many common English names have variations such as Brown and Browne, often because of non-standards. And here we have a good example of dialect, as in Jamaica the latter becomes Browney instead of Brown in England.
The French still have an institute for standardization and fight mightily to keep out Anglicizations such as “le weekend”.
Ironically, many leading English speaking countries are reconsidering relaxation of standards and emphasising “communication”. A child who is expressive in a composition gets a higher grade than one who shows little creativity but is perfect in grammar and spelling. We are more conservative in this regard because we believe that in legal areas especially and science words must mean the same thing to those who use them.
There are those who believe that the language debate is out of place, questioning whether people should find time to discuss “heady” things in the midst of tragic happenings around them such as the high crime on the island. But life doesn’t begin or end in tragedy. Artists didn’t stop painting during WWII. In fact, it could be argued that if we had a more literate population, in whatever language, our discussions would not be centred solely on violence.
We are not disappointed on a day when the newspaper isn’t filled with the usual gore – although as a newsorgan, we sometimes have a laugh when we browse the news sites of other more tranquil Caribbean ilands and see what’s occupying their minds. Good news for us in the news business is bad news. However, the reason we started Abeng was to stimulate debates beyond the daily mundane and to encourage more rigorous thinking.
What a boring man Bob Marley would have been if he only sang about freeing Africans suffering in the ghetto.
About Mark Lee
Editor, author and writer with career spanning print, radio, television and new media.