Centuries ago, some of our ancestors were brought to the Caribbean by European colonizers. They hailed from a multiplicity of language groups. It was evident that they faced a linguistic crisis. How do they communicate with each other? How do they communicate with those who had enslaved them? Very soon, they were granted what I believe was God-given creativity which gave birth to a new language. At first appearance, outwardly, this language resembles English – the language of the oppressors. Most of the vocabulary is based on English. However, the internal structure of the language – that is, the grammar – is based on African languages. This new language came to be known as Patwa, although it is also referred to as Jamaican Creole, and more recently, simply ‘Jamaican’.
I like to tell this story before reading from the Jamaican New Testament wherever I go, to set the atmosphere so that people are more likely to listen with pride than with skepticism at best or disgust at worst. I fully understand the aversion some persons have toward the language. When I was growing up, Patwa was not allowed in our home. In fact, we were fined if we used it! My mom placed a container in the middle of the dining table, and if we spoke anything that was not ‘the Queen’s English’ we had to put money in it. It was considered to be very bad language. Needless to say, English was the first language I acquired. Although Patwa was strongly discouraged at home, I fell in love with it. I grasped every opportunity to read Louise Bennett poems and Anancy stories.
In 1981 I started my training as a teacher of Spanish and English Language. Imagine my joyful surprise in what was perhaps my very first lesson in linguistics, to learn that contrary to all I had been taught previously, Patwa (which I then learned should more correctly be referred to as ‘Jamaican Creole’) is actually a language in its own right! It possesses all the characteristics of language. Given then that arguably, most Jamaican children acquire this language first, we were trained that English should be taught as a second language to most Jamaican children. After so many years of discovering this, it is very frustrating to me that successive Jamaican governments have still not publicly acknowledged our language as a language, and made the necessary changes in our education system to ensure that all our children maximize on their learning potential by learning English as a second language.
My joy was full when in December 2012 the Jamaican New Testament (JNT) was published and launched. Here are three reasons I believe it is important:
- God translated Himself from deity to humanity through His Son Jesus Christ, in order to bring us salvation and to communicate to us as human beings. Translation is a significant part of the modus operandi of God.
- Language has been used to divide people in Jamaica, putting speakers of one language – English – above speakers of another language – Jamaican (Creole/Patwa). In the kingdom of God, all are on level ground. Having the Bible in Jamaican (Patwa) will help to bring equality to the corporate worship space.
- In 2009, I led a Bible study session in an inner city community in Kingston. It was based on the story of the Prodigal Son found in the gospel of Luke. At the time, the JNT was not yet complete, but as a friend of the translators, I had access to select passages as they worked on it. The bible study group read the passage in English together first from the New International Version, and then I read it to them in Patwa. The atmosphere in the room shifted as people started instinctively and animatedly reacting to the story. It was as if they were hearing it for the first time! In the ensuing discussion, one woman made a comment that has changed my life permanently. She said “I don’t think in English. I think in Patwa. Whenever I hear something in English I have to stop and process it. Meanwhile, so many things have passed me by!”
So no – I do not see the Bible in Patwa as being a retrograde step. In fact, I believe it is a bold and necessary step in advancing the Kingdom of God as people are now hearing God speak to them directly in their heart language.
Executive Director, CREW 40:4
Promoting love and unity in Christ through culturally relevant expressions of worship!