There is an ongoing debate in Jamaica concerning the validity and usefulness of patois, the local dialect. On one side, some argue that it is an authentic language of communication used by the majority of Jamaicans and should therefore have its place in the school curriculum; on the other side, critics argue that promoting patois will limit the user’s opportunities in a standard English world. Just yesterday, one critic, a professor of history at Johns Hopkins University no less, stated that encouraging patois at school:
encourages a lapse of mental and physical discipline as well as the wanton disregard of conventional standards.
Daily Observer, 27/01/06
At that level of understanding, he might have added that it stunts your growth and can lead to blindness.
As a linguist, my starting point is that any language in use is valid and worthy of study. The interest is in discovering how different languages are used to present users’ different experiences and perceptions of their world. Patois fascinates me with its etymological richness and its oral strength. Etymologically, it echoes the national motto,
OUT OF MANY, ONE PEOPLE
with its incredibly diverse borrowings from other languages: Wolof (Senegal), Twi & Fante (Ghana), Ewe (Ghana & Togo), Ibo & Hausa (Nigeria), Bube (Bioko), Bantu Douala (Cameroon), Kikongo (Congo), Gulla (US South Carolina dialect), Amharic (Ethiopia), Galibi (Guyana), Hindi, Portuguese, Spanish, Latin and of course English.
The oral strength of patois is evident in its many phatic expressions, such as hear me now, y’hear? Ah tell yah, seen? Phatic expressions serve to keep communication open by checking reception. It is considered to be the primary function of language for babies, when they learn that their first attempts at communication trigger enthusiastic responses. In standard English, the most common example these days is on a cellphone with poor reception:
Hello! Hello! Can you hear me?!
In face to face conversation, however, standard English has become more formalized and expects the listener to follow without extra phatic encouragement.
As a validation exercise, I thought of rewriting a famous text in patois. The text itself is without interest; the trick is rendering it in different ways. Originally published in 1947, Raymond Queneau’s Exercices de style have become the most celebrated example of a writing constraint, where the writer imposes a restriction on the limits of writing. Other examples include texts by Queneau’s disciple, Georges Perec, such as La disparition, which was written without using the letter “e”, and Les revenentes in which the only vowel used is “e”!
The constraint of retelling the same banal story in 99 different styles reveals the incredible potential of language that we use every day without thought. The different versions include telling the story as if in a dream, or in the style of a book blurb or as an offical letter, or simply playing with time, colours, different accents or jargon. Exercices de style was brilliantly translated into English by Barbara Hepworth, who privileged Queneau’s spirit of playfulness over mechanical translation.
So here’s the point of this post: a retelling of Queneau’s story in patois. The story in standard English is as follows: the narrator gets in a crowded bus and notices a young man with a long neck wearing a hat with a plait (braid) instead of a ribbon. The young man has a minor altercation with another passenger then quickly retreats to a free seat. Shortly after, the narrator sees the same man in discussion with a friend. The friend tells the young man that he should put the button on his overcoat higher (!). Hardly Hollywood material, but the point is forcing this meagre material into different forms through the power of language.
Here’s my attempt at a patois version:
Now hear dis, mek Ah tell oonu, wa day de bus dem full up wid so much people dem. An ah see dere one dem jump up good fuh nutten boasie maaga jancro wid him winjy neck fit fe choke, ah tell yah bwai! ‘im a fix a ribbon an ‘is ‘at fenky-fenky come een like ‘im Selassie ‘isself, yaah! Smady cut yai an’ ‘im vex an’ bawl some faasty nying’i-nying’i. It oht fi mek one kass-kass, ah’m tellin’ yah. Cho! ‘im nah tallowah doh an’ ‘im jus’ kiss ‘im teet’ an’ a go cotch far dereso quick quick.
Kiss mi nek, nah tree hower layta me see ‘im gen laba-laba wid ‘im breddah oo seh ‘im muss put ‘im button likkle more higher depan ‘im coat so, seen?
I would be grateful if other true speakers of patois correct and improve my version. For non-patois speakers, see if you can come up with another version based on your regional dialect or local slang or marketing jargon or …