Speak JA

Interview: Professor Hubert Devonish, Advocate for Jamaican Patois as a Language

Written by Xavier Murphy

Professor Hubert Devonish of the University of the West Indies has been one of the strongest advocates fighting for Jamaican Patois as a Language. He has created a writing and spelling system for Jamaican Patois. This month we have a conversation with him about Jamaican Patois as a Language.

Q: When did you come to the realization that Jamaican patois should be recognized as a separate language?
I am not Jamaican but Guyanese.  My language awareness started in Guyana in relation to Guyanese Creole or as we term it, Creolese.  In the course of my High School education, I had two teachers from England and one from the US.  Separately, they talked in class about the fact that Guyanese did not, in the course of normal interaction, speak English.  That was a revelation to me.  Then, a well-known researcher of Guyanese folklore who ran a radio programme on Caribbean folklore and traditions, Wordsworth McAndrew, visited our school.  That, coupled with the broadcast of Anansii stories on the radio, began to develop in me an awareness that Creolese was a separate language from English, with its own history and rules.  Later on, I discovered that the people who study Caribbean Creole languages are linguists and that the subject to study at the University of Guyana, to pursue that area was Linguistics.  I eventually did a Ph.D. in Linguistics and ended up in Jamaica where the language situation is quite similar to that of Guyana.  In addition, the Jamaican Language is quite similar to Guyanese Creolese, so the carry over to me taking a similar position on Jamaican to that which I had taken on Creolese in Guyana was easy.

Q: Who are your biggest supporter and the biggest detractors? Is it the intellects or politicians or the grassroots people?
Many people are ambivalent on the language question.  And that spans the entire spectrum of social groups and classes.  We did a National Language Attitude Survey of Jamaica in 2005.  1000 respondents were surveyed right across Jamaica.

The results show that about 70 percent of the population would (i) support Jamaican being made an official language alongside English, (ii) support Jamaican and English being used alongside each other as languages of literacy teaching and of instruction in schools in Jamaica,, (iii) regard favourably the Minister of Finance doing a budget presentation in Parliament in Jamaican.  This supports earlier research done around the year 2000, in which it was found that a significant majority of member of the Lower House of Parliament would vote in favour of a bill that would declare Jamaican an official language alongside English.

A key aspect of the Language Attitude Survey is that younger people are more favourable to Jamaican than older people, that urban people are more favourable than rural people, and that males are more favourable than females.  The profile of the strongest opposition to the Jamaican Language is an older, rural female.  The strongest supporter would be a younger, urban, male.  Obviously, these represent extremes and the reality is that support and opposition come from all quarters and categories.  The key point is that, in spite of the outpourings of the chattering classes in the mass media, the evidence points to a significant majority of the population in support.

Q: What do you say to the critics who say Patois is a slang that constantly changes?
I can present them with the oldest known text in the Jamaican Language, written around 1783.  Any speaker of Jamaican in the 21st century can understand that text.  So much for the nonsense about Jamaican constantly changing.  So too does English.  The 1960s slangs such as ‘groovy’, ‘sock it to me’, ‘right on’, are long dead and not understandable to people who were not around at that time.  So, Jamaican too has slang, which comes and goes.  The core of a language, however, is quite constant.  ‘Pikni’ to mean ‘child’ and ‘nyam’ to mean ‘eat’ have been around for as long as the Jamaican language has been in existence.  That would be about 350 years.

Q: What would Jamaican patois be called? Would it be Jamaican, Patwa or Patois?
Jamaican, in the same way that the language of Spain is Spanish, of Turkey, Turkish, Norway Norwegian, etc.  Patois is the term originally used for regional dialects of French in France, and has been extended to described French-lexicon Creoles of the Caribbean, like St. Lucian.  In fact, the spelling ‘Patwa’ has been used to describe St. Lucian French Creole.  The most accurate label is, therefore, Jamaican.

Q: You and your team have created some “structure” around Jamaican patois with spelling and pronunciation system. How was this system developed when there are so many different flavors of patois?
We didn’t create ‘structure’ for Jamaican.  All languages have a structure in order for one to be able to use them to communicate.  The one thing that was developed was a standard writing system for the language.  We didn’t develop it.  Rather, Frederic Cassidy, a linguist of Jamaican origin, developed it and published it in a book called ‘Jamaica Talk’, in 1963 or thereabouts.  We at the JLU have slightly modified it into what we call the Cassidy-JLU writing system for the language.

Q: What was your biggest challenge developing the Jamaican patois system?
None.  It was already there and just needed tweaking.  The real issue is how we encourage people who are literate in English to learn a new writing system for Jamaican.  Many would much prefer the established method of using the English writing system to represent, albeit inaccurately, the sounds of Jamaican.

Q: Tell us about the program you did in the schools to teach both patois and English to students? What was the goal? What are the results of the program?
This was a bilingual programme which taught literacy, as well as all the primary school subjects, in Jamaican and in English.  This ran for 4 years, from Grades 1-4.  The children developed high levels of literacy in both languages.

Q: Do you plan to do this program again in the future?
Perhaps, in a situation where we are much better funded and can educate the children in situations which are closer to the ideal than those which typically exist in primary schools in Jamaica.

Q: Would the cost to translate books and other materials be prohibitive to teaching patois in schools?
Not with the existence of all the new technologies which allow for ssmall-scalereproduction of written materials.  As for the translations, these were done by completing students at UWI, in the discipline of linguistics.  They did the translations as part of a summer internship in the Dept. of Language, Linguistics & Philosophy, under my supervision.

Q: Have you seen progress with people accepting patois as a language?
In the Language Attitude Survey, it is clear that already close to 70% of the population already do so.  The problem is one of how to have their voices be heard.

Q: Is there an effort by your team to get the government to recognize it as an official language in Jamaica?
At this stage, the focus is on trying to have the freedom from discrimination on the ground of language included within the new Charter of Rights to the Jamaican Constitution.  This would oblige the government and all institutions of the state to provide services to the Jamaican public in a language of their choice, which for many will be Jamaican.  That would be a first step towards official recognition of the language.

Q: Have you seen another similar “debates” with languages in other parts of the world? Have you seen a successful model you can follow to get patois recognized as a language?
The Seychelles, with a French Creole as official language, Curacao with Papiamentu (a Portuguese Creole, as an official language) and Haiti, with a French Creole as official language, present just a few examples.

Q: Where do you think this debate of Jamaican patois being an official language 10 years from now?
The language would have achieved official status by then.

Q: Thanks for your time. Do you have any closing thoughts?
The struggle continues.

About the author

Xavier Murphy