People of Color Must Speak Our Dialects and Native Tongues Even When It Makes Other People Uncomfortable
It’s Not Enough to Speak English Well, We Have to Master and Use Our Own Languages
In her poem, “Choices,” the great Nikki Giovanni says, “When i can’t express what i really feel i practice feeling what i can express and none of it is equal,” and so it is with all language. As we human beings try to get as near as possible to saying what it is we really feel and mean, people of color must speak and preserve our first languages, our non-European languages and distinct dialects to the extent that we know them instead of forgoing them in favor of the languages involuntarily imposed upon our ancestors by colonizers and enslavers or thrust upon us as a condition of relocation in search of better lives as marginalized people abroad often in the very countries who exploited our homelands to achieve their desirability to migrants and immigrants alike.
The predominance of European languages throughout the Americas is premised on a lie and that lie must be exposed and its exposure must be disseminated far and wide: English and other European languages aren’t better than other non-European languages. The lie that they are is couched in colonialism and white supremacy and must be rejected. Because so much of our identity is tied up in the languages we speak, when we speak and preserve our own dialects and languages, we resist their marginalization, and also our own. As a Jamaican American, this is of especial importance today, August 6, as Jamaicans across the diaspora celebrate Independence Day.
This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t use standardized European languages as resources and tools for achievement and access or even as vehicles to bolster our work around issues of equity and equality or otherwise. It’s that in all places of the world where European languages have been superimposed, mainly in the southern hemisphere, people of color have sufficiently proven that we can master European languages and rhetoric. Many of us can codeswitch comfortably and seamlessly when we need to between boardroom and backyard and as Jamaicans say, yard. We have had enough great people of color virtuosos in European languages around the world. I don’t have to list them for you. We have also read enough European literature. We get advanced degrees in these languages and writings. We conduct business in them. We don’t collectively have anything left to prove academically or professionally regarding our abilities on this front. As the matter is settled, we should allow as much attention to preserving and mastering our own tongues. And, if we must master English, or other European languages, we should at least let our mastery become a tool of our resistance to being erased from the annals of history and tools of being included in history if not in our own languages, than at least in our own words.
I was born in the United States, but while the language that was spoken and sung in lullaby at my own cribside was technically English, it wasn’t standard US English. In fact, if you are are a US English speaker, and haven’t been repeatedly exposed to it, you probably won’t be able to understand it or even recognize it as English. My parents and all four of my grandparents, all of whom could speak standardized English, spoke familiar, rich, warm, Jamaican Patois amongst themselves and to and with us .
Jamaican Patois, or patwa as we call it, is a rhythmic mash up of mostly English, a bit of Spanish and French, and several African languages, with minute traces of Arawak-Taíno — the language spoken by the indigenous Caribbean people of the same name who did not survive colonization as a culturally distinct group due to the import of European diseases, the brutality of their colonization and racial admixture. It is from Taíno that the island’s name is derived. Xaymaca — land of wood and water became Jamaica at some point in the 17th century.
Like most words in the dialect, we spell patwa the way it sounds to us and not in the standardized way it is written in French. The silent “s” in the original French is unnecessary and clipped off for the sake of clarity and convenience and the ois sound becomes wa. Some of the words in patwa are loan words or slightly modified loan words adopted directly from these predecessors, like patwa, while others are direct translations of African syntaxic phrases into English and merely spoken with local accents that vary amongst the Parishes and around the island. There are even distinct varieties of patwa spoken by different groups, like the patwa spoken by Jamaican Maroons, the descendants of formerly enslaved persons who hid high in the hills of the eastern part of the island to escape enslavement, that is more true to its Akan predecessor and nearly unintelligible to most, more standard Jamaican patwa speakers.
Patwa, like so many other creoles in the Caribbean, arose out of the need for enslaved Black people who were required to learn, speak and far less frequently, write, English, Spanish, or French, quickly to communicate. We have the distinct Caribbean accents and languages and dialects like patwa in Jamaica, creole in Haiti, and the variations of Spanish unique to each of the primarily Spanish speaking islands, and the other variants of these European languages spoken throughout the Caribbean, due to this fact.
The unique oral traditions that exist on the various islands arose out of the rapid hybridization that occured when speakers of different languages collided by force of conquest and slavery. As these creoles developed, if more enslaved Africans who spoke one language were transported to one place, one finds more words from that language integrated into the creole that is spoken there with the foundation of all of the creoles being the language of the colonizing or enslaving party. When enslaved Africans who spoke different languages ended up together in the islands as frequently was the case, you find words from several languages preserved. Like other creoles, patwa served its purpose well, as all languages must, to allow for effective communication amongst enslaved people and over time their descendants. It was and is a spoken language more than a written one as historically there was no need for it to be written as most enslaved persons, as a mechanism to control them, weren’t permitted the privilege of being taught to read and write.
I was bilingual in a manner of speaking by the time I started school. I spoke and learned patwa with and from my family, but learned a non-regional General US English the way most children of immigrants who speak another language familiarly do, from watching television, Sesame Street in particular. I didn’t recognize the differences in how my family spoke juxtaposed with the US English I was simultaneously hearing and learning. One day, I went to pre-school and complained that another little girl, “juk’ed,” me in the eye, much to the bewilderment of my teacher. I remember the sense of exasperation I felt unable to explain to the teacher what I meant in any other words as the word, “poke,” seems to have escaped me. It seemed so plain to me what I was trying to say. My teacher’s inability to understand me only further provoked my infantile perception of injustice. My teacher must have thought that I had made up the word the way small children sometimes do. I’m sure she must have laughed, but I hadn’t. Juk, as any Jamaican can tell you, in patwa means, “to poke.” The word is derived from a Fula word, jukka, which has the same meaning. I was interchanging my two languages, speaking the Jamaican equivalent of Spanglish, to try and communicate the way I did at home. It just didn’t make sense to my teacher. The direct cause of my tearful suffering was lost in translation.
I’m not sure if it is because it was the first language I heard regularly spoken, even though I have difficulty now speaking it authentically, but for me, Jamaican patwa is one of the most effective languages on earth. Even when the words don’t form or come out of my mouth right and feel odd as is the plight of so many first generation Jamaican immigrants, I understand and recognize patwa’s distinct advantages. It’s succinct, efficient, and evocative. Less words often mean more in Patwa. It doesn’t require long convoluted sentence structure or multiple tenses or conjugations to convey meaning. No. Mi tek (I take), she tek (she takes), and dem tek (they take), are all conjugated the same way, but the meaning changes merely by changing the noun, not the verb. There is tidy elegance in the simplicity. Less time is expended on saying things “properly,” than is spent on conveying meaning, which at the most basic level is the whole point of language in the first place.
Communication isn’t all about words and standard spelling and grammar. Ask any parent. Before they can speak, children can convey meaning very clearly in other ways with and without sound. Spoken patwa relies heavily on subcontext and conveys additional meaning through how words are said, through tone, and gesture. Nuance and context is everything in patwa. Jamaica’s first lady of comedy, Ms. Lou, in her unparalleled ability to highlight patwa’s inherent beauty, frequently referenced this uncanny ability to give meaning through sound and phrasing. In our music and conversation, one might liken the Jamaican use of language in all its forms to Shakespeare’s use of puns.
To add to the efficiency, Jamaicans speak in proverbs, clip consonants, and omit excess verbiage at every turn. If a Jamaican tells you that, “sumting bruk,” you may be able to hear that it is broken, just as the word broken has been down to a derivative form, without my telling you. The most clever slights of tongue and onomatopoeia enrich and add flavor to every conversation. My mother and aunts can call me, “gal,” — literally, gal , and have it mean a dozen different things depending on how they say it. When amongst Jamaicans, you have to rely heavily on context, on women standing akimbo, chins being juked forward to indicate direction, and nonverbal kisses of teeth to understand anything. To observe or communicate in patwa is to witness beautiful poetry in motion.
If your mother has never chastised you in the tongue, consider yourself lucky. You do not want to be cussed or traced out by a Jamaican person who you have wronged. Even if you don’t fully understand what it is said, I promise that you won’t forget it.
And yet, despite their inherent value as mechanisms of communication, in most places that have been colonized by the English, dialects like Jamaican patwa are stomped out. Even in the capital city of Jamaica, the patwa that is spoken is closer to standard British English than it is the the more regional creoles spoken elsewhere on the island. This is unsurprising when one considers that in places like Jamaica, native or imported marginalized groups were historically required to adopt English or another European language and eventually those superimposed languages became the official language in many now former colonies at the expense of native languages, or languages created by enslaved persons after colonization and through the trade of enslaved peoples. Enslaved persons and natives who spoke English well, were likely rewarded probably in part because such people could codeswitch on behalf of colonizers and convey messages with less proficient English speakers while all would have been discouraged from speaking their native languages or patoises for fear that it might give them opportunity to plot against their enslavers or colonizers.
When English speaking Americans rebuke people for speaking other languages in their presence, I wonder if the impulse is rooted in the same fear of the overthrow of their tenuous and ill-gotten dominance over less powerful groups. Having a second language that is difficult for others to understand does allow you some privacy even when in public. Because patwa has the benefit of sounding like a foreign language to non-speakers, if we are in public and my mother wants draw my attention to something without others knowing or to know how I have interpreted a situation, especially one involving a perceived injustice, instead of asking me in US English, she will switch to patwa to ask me before she reacts. Oddly enough, I can’t always tell the difference in her code switching or even hear her accent consciously until someone points it out
Patwa stands in direct contrast to the more formal official language of the island, English, which is deemed acceptable in professional settings, academic institutions, business and government settings. The dichotomy speaks to fundamental question which with nonstandard dialects must constantly wrestle even as they persist: can meaning in language be effectively conveyed without standardization? And if not, if we don’t standardize our languages, are we destined to Babel?
For Blacks around the world, language has always been an integral part of our evocative style. Whether it is the Southern, Midwestern, and Western styles of Ebonics in the United States, or the Gullah of South Carolina, or the slang used in Reggaeton, or elsewhere, Black people across the diaspora have traditionally used language and dialect to distinguish ourselves.
The irony of the insistence on the official use of these European languages around the world either as first languages or primary second languages to the exclusion of dialects, pidgin and other languages, is that they are themselves, like all language evolving. That in the United States we don’t speak British English, and British people don’t speak the same English as Shakespeare is evidence. The English that our great, great, great grandchildren will speak will sound different than our own, although probably less different due to the ability to record audio so easily now which will likely help to promote and preserve standardization and slow the evolution of the language dramatically.
In many places, the systematic superimposition of European cultures as superior worked so perfectly that it left ghosts in the machine. Even in the present day, nationals and residents in former colonies reinforce the supremacy of English and other European languages over their own languages because so deeply ingrained is the understanding that the language and cultures of colonizers are superior even if no one can give valid reasons why. The irony being that those indigenous or developing languages don’t have the opportunity to standardize and likely never will because they are thoroughly rejected de facto, thereby increasing the necessity for the use of the European languages in the Americas.
After the end of enslavement, adopting more standard English has had lasting economic impact given its primacy as the official language of commerce and administration in most former British colonies. In my own ancestral home, Jamaicans have taken up the work of minimizing the use of the dialect in favor of the Queen’s English. Small children are admonished for speaking in patois and told to speak properly, meaning to speak standard English. English has the privilege of being formalized and standardized and so it evolves comparatively slowly. Patwa, despite being the unofficial national language, has not ever truly beens standardized or acknowledged as a permissible language or dialect outside of informal settings, although various attempts have been made to do so. Because of this patwa evolves much more quickly. As patwa evolves, new words and expressions arise swiftly and spread easily because the population is comparatively small. This treatment of patwa further advances its marginalization and the difficulty we are met with when attempts are made to standardize it. We need more writers like Marlon James willing to promote it as a valid form of expression and to give it the primacy it deserves in Jamaica and abroad.
When we subjugate our own languages and dialects in favor of standard European ones, a vital link to our ancestry is clipped along with so many others. If it wasn’t enough that our ancestors were stripped of their religions, foods, families, homes, but the ability to express themselves unique and apart from their colonizers was also stolen and even when new languages arose to allow them to do so, they were marginalized.
We must insist on speaking our own languages and dialects. Muhammed Ali, said, “I am America. I am the part you won’t recognize. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me.” I might add, our languages when we want to speak them, not yours anywhere in the world we might be.
The irony isn’t lost on me that all these creoles are tainted by the legacy of slavery and would not exist at all without it. Nor is it lost on me that to convey meaning to the largest audience which I am capable of reaching, I must write in standard English. It is of course a byproduct of the nature of my personal history. That I must master a language that was imposed upon my ancestors is one of the myriad of ways that my life has been and continues to be personally shaped by colonial influence and the legacy of slavery. That I can’t always express myself exactly how I want to because most people around me won’t understand me, creates a cognitive dissonance at times, although less so for me than my parents, and I’m sure less so for my parents than for my grandparents.
I want people to hear patwa with as much interest and respect as they hear Italian or French or any other languages because all languages have merit even if you can’t speak or understand them because language at its core is a tool of expression, and when it achieves this goal, it has served its purpose. Whatever your native language is, when we use, promote, and preserve what is left of our dialects and languages in this way, we preserve our ability to express ourselves in ways that feel most authentic even if for people of the Americas our creoles are themselves tainted by the framework of oppression that stripped our ancestors of their true native tongues. When we speak and preserve them we affirm their and our right to exist and persist. When we speak them, even when it makes other people uncomfortable, we are demanding for and granting ourselves the same privilege that every European and European descended person on earth has — the privilege to speak our own languages. And we must because if we don’t speak our first languages and dialects, anything we may truly feel or think, once expressed, risks being lost forever in translation.