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Ivy League College Recognizes Jamaican Creole as a Language – How Patois (Patwa) Got Me A College Language Exemption

Ivy League College Recognizes Jamaican Creole as a Language - Patois Patwa Language Exemption

All students at Dartmouth College, in New Hampshire, must study a foreign language, unless they are bi or multilingual. By the time I matriculated in 2008, I was assured by research into the status of Creole languages, and the linguistic properties of Jamaican Creole in particular, that I was bilingual, and so by right, should be given exemption from the institution’s foreign-language requirement.

I contacted the registrar’s office and was directed to a professor in the Linguistics department who studies Creole languages. The college had never before recognized Jamaican Creole, and my claim would have to pass the department’s vetting.  I was quite nervous as I went to speak with the professor, but the process was quite simple. All I needed to do was speak with him in Patwa for a few minutes. His concern wasn’t whether Jamaican Creole was a bona fide language (the definition of ‘language’ used by linguists is quite inclusive), but rather, whether my claim for exemption was legitimate.

You’d think this would be a simple undertaking, but it was incredibly challenging. Never had I ever been demanded to speak Jamaican Creole on spot, and without code switching.  But, I began calmly, “Maanin Profesa. Mi niem Javid an mi kom frahn Jomieka.  Mi av tuu breda ahn wan sista, an mi a di washbeli. Mi mada a jresmeka, an mi gruo wid ar afta mi faada lef fi go wok a farin wen mi a nain…” The Patwa rolled from my tongue as the professor stared at me, listening intently. After this, I explained to him the status of Jamaican Creole on the island, to which he was very sympathetic. I showed him writings I had done using the standard ‘Cassidy-JLU’ system, and he promised to contact me after he had discussed the matter further with other senior professors in the department.

Two months later, I received a letter in the mail, which informed me that my application for exemption was successful. A feeling of triumph welled up inside me. My conviction, based on everything I read, that I was fully bilingual was validated by a group of linguists at one of America’s best colleges. What else can I do to affirm the linguistic heritage of Jamaica, and make Jamaicans proud of their language, which is so well studied in linguistic communities?

Photo by Changbok Ko on Unsplash

About the author

Jaghai Javed