Photo by Master isolated images at

Over the past few months, the ever-present patois/patois/creole/Jamaican wars have shifted into high gear. On the one hand you have Jamaicans who cannot understand why there is a debate, and insist that the answer is to forget about patois in any formal setting, especially in the schools, and to ensure that children speak English.

In the other corner are those who believe that the controversy is yet another example of our self-contempt and refusal to acknowledge and celebrate that which belongs to us.

It’s such a hot topic, I’m blogging on it over at Since the RJR link link is not active right now, however, here’s my post.

Jamaicans get passionate about many things, but even so, the raging debate over patwa/patois/creole/Jamaican, call it what you will, has got to be near the top of the list.

The latest onslaught of letters to the editor and calls to talk shows seems to have been fuelled by  concerns about falling grades in CSEC English this year, and the role of patois in creating the problem or being part of the solution, depending on your point of view.

You have Jamaicans who cannot understand why this is even a debate, who feel strongly that patois is fine in its place, as long as that place is nowhere near the seats of power or the classroom.

Then, there are expert linguists who argue that patois is a language, the first language of most Jamaicans, and it should be formally recognized by officialdom. (And let me head off the inevitable protests that patois can’t be recognized because it is not standardized by pointing out that Frederic Cassidy developed a writing system for patois, and his Dictionary of Jamaican English was first published by  Cambridge University Press as far back as 1967.)

Suggestions for official recognition have included a recommendation from Linguistics Professor at the University of

University of the West Indies
University of the West Indies (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

the West Indies (UWI) Hubert Devonish for a constitutional amendment banning discrimination on the basis of language, and a proposal from UWI Professor of literary and cultural studies Carolyn Cooper in a September 14, 2008 article in the Gleaner that the Prime Minister address Parliament at least once a year in Jamaican, and that portions of the budget debate be given in both English and patois, so everyone could understand.

Cooper however is a pragmatist and I am sure has no illusions about the likelihood of either of these occurrences any time soon. Indeed, in another article dated November 6, 2011 in the Gleaner, she called Jamaica:

“…one of the most backward places on Earth when it comes to acknowledging the value of the Creole languages created by African people who were colonised by Europeans.”

Her consistent advocacy for the Jamaican language has made her the target of hostility from critics, many of whom insist on spreading the false rumour that academics are trying to keep down poor people’s children by preventing them from being able to read or speak English, thus ensuring that they are unable to function outside of Jamaica. This is such a blatant misrepresentation of the various positions expressed that one wonders if its adherents are deliberately  trying to deceive or just haven’t bothered at inform themselves about the issues on which they opine so loudly.

There are several issues that we can debate. Should patois be an official language? Should it be used in official spaces


such as Parliament? Should it be used to help instruct children in the classroom and if so, to what extent and to what level?   

Jamaican Parliament
Photo by DJ Miller

What is not at all controversial however is that all Jamaicans should be fluent in English. In all my years of reading and doing interviews on this issue, I have never heard anyone suggest the contrary. It’s a bright red herring artfully drawn across the debate to drum up support for the opposition to giving patois any kind of official recognition, even if this would benefit many of our people.

In fact, Cooper said clearly in her September 14, 2008 column, in calling for more respect for the Jamaican language:

Of course, the international appeal of our Jamaican language does not mean that we don’t have to be fluent in other languages. Far from it. We must ensure that every single Jamaican child is taught English efficiently. I have to keep reminding my simple-minded critics that I teach English for a living. The fact that I value my mother tongue doesn’t make me devalue other languages.”

No one who opens his or her eyes and looks around can deny that patois-speakers are routinely discriminated against in this country. Just observe some of the transactions in our banks, government offices, and courts, where people perfectly capable of speaking patois often refuse to do so despite the clear evidence that the person they are speaking to either does not understand them, or understands them imperfectly.

I’m convinced by now that the misrepresentations being spread, and eagerly latched onto by so many, go back to the class issue. One of the problems with the patois debate, in fact, is the several layers and complex issues involved, including colour, class, money, history, education, and the power of language.

 In our All Angles programme on this issue, Devonish explained that patois has low status in Jamaican society. You can view that programme here:

The Language Education Policy of the Ministry of Education refers to the status issue thus:

“SJE (Standard Jamaican English), the official language, is used in formal settings. Symbolising high status and prestige, it is, however, the language of a small minority.  Jamaican Creole, the language of the overwhelming majority of the descendants of slaves, has traditionally had little status, no acceptability in official and formal contexts, and is commonly referred to as Patois, the French term for a low-status dialect.”

We make fun of the days when Jamaicans used to visit the United States for a week and think it necessary to return home with new clothes, cornflakes and an American accent. But how far have we progressed?

Why the contemptuous and disgusted rejection of suggestions to make patois an official language if not an unwillingness to recognize its value and worth? So what if nobody else in the world speaks patois? Is that a reason for us not to value our own language? And again, valuing Jamaican does not mean devaluing English. Let me say that again, as it is one of the biggest misconceptions prevalent in the debate. Believing that patois, and patois-speakers should be treated with more respect, does not equate to a belief that English is either unimportant or unnecessary. Other countries have been able to understand this.

I’m not aware of any country apart from Wales, for example, where Welsh is spoken. Far from trying to devalue Welsh, there have been strenuous attempts to preserve the language, which is spoken by just over 20% of the population, according to a 2004 survey by the Welsh Language Board. Compare that to the much higher prevalence of patois-speakers in Jamaica.


The National Eisteddfod, an annual celebration of Welsh culture, conducted in Welsh Photo by Arwel Parry, Wikimedia Commons

Vocal language advocacy resulted in the passage of the 1967 Welsh Language Act which gave more recognition to the language. That legislation was updated in 1993 after continued advocacy, and in 2010, another law was passed to promote Welsh, including providing for the creation of a Language Commissioner, to enforce the provisions of the law, such as a requirement that government entities make services available in Welsh.

First Minister Carwyn Jones was quoted by the BBC in a story dated 7 December 2010 as saying that:

“Although legislation alone is not enough, this measure provides us with some of the tools we need to ensure that the Welsh language can continue to prosper into the 21st Century, alongside the English language.” (emphasis added)

When the United Nations declared 2008 the International Year of Languages, the Director General of UNESCO said:

“Thousands of languages – though mastered by those populations for whom it is the daily means of expression – are absent from education systems, the media, publishing and the public domain in general.

We must act now as a matter of urgency. How? By encouraging and developing language policies that enable each linguistic community to use its first language, or mother tongue, as widely and as often as possible, including in education, while also mastering a national or regional language and an international language. Also by encouraging speakers of a dominant language to master another national or regional language and one or two international languages. Only if multilingualism is fully accepted can all languages find their place in our globalized world.”

It would be hard to say it better.

Remember, you can watch our discussion of the issue of Patois in the Classroom on All Angles here.


Dionne Jackson Miller hosts Beyond the Headlines, a weekday current affairs programme on RJR 94 FM, and All Angles, a weekly programme on TVJ.

Please also check out other related and interesting posts by Annie Paul over at Active Voice,  and of course by Carolyn Cooper at Woman Tongue.  Incidentally, after I wrote my post I saw that Annie Paul had also used the word “wars’ to describe the controversy!

Photo by Stuart Miles at