Martin Henry | Running off your mouth on Jamiekan - EntornoInteligente / Although lacking an army and a navy, Jamiekan is indeed a language. In vocabulary, grammar and syntax, it is sufficiently different from all other languages, including Standard Jamaican English, to be considered one on its own. One of the best ways to fact-check this is to ask a linguist with no activist interest for or against Jamiekan to run the analysis.

But Jamiekan isn’t about to replace English as a language of instruction. It couldn’t, even if we tried. Jamiekan is not sufficiently codified and popularised in writing to be used as a medium of literate instruction or communication.

The point often missed in our recurrent Great Language Debate (or Quarrel, as Daniel Thwaites put it in his column last Sunday) which bruk out every now and again is how best to teach English, the lingua franca of the world, so that Jamiekan-speaking children will learn it as efficiently as possible and become fluent in it. Teaching English as a second language is a particularly well-developed discipline that is used everywhere where first-language debates don’t get in the way like here.

And the whole world is learning English as the lingua franca of global communication.

Another prime minister is running off his mouth about making Spanish a second language for Jamaica without any mention of the strategies and costs of language immersion.

Multilingualism is, in fact, quite natural around the world where populations are not isolated and insulated from other language groups (as ours largely is). In language-dense continental Europe, people are routinely multilingual effortlessly and they all learn English on top of what they acquire in the normal course of living. Our University of Pretoria driver on an academic visit to South Africa told us in immaculate English that he spoke several native languages as well besides his mother tongue.

All the people of Mauritius, a little island country which I visited on another university project trip, naturally speak two or more languages from among their own native Kreol (which is also written), French, English and Hindi, on account of their colonial history of immigration. And just recently, UTech had a deputy president from central India who, along with English, spoke several languages of India naturally picked up from his linguistic environment.

What Jamiekan needs to establish its status as a distinct language is widely used common literature. Jamiekan can’t be “ruled a distinct language” as Daniel Thwaites had it last Sunday. The determination of a language is descriptive like the laws of nature, not prescriptive like the laws of the state. It is or it isn’t by universally applicable linguistic rules.



But Mr Thwaites, in his critique, is missing a crucial point when he concludes that “the ‘English’ they speak in India, Nigeria, Kenya and a host of other countries will likely have to be called different languages as well”. If accent is the defining feature, yes. But all these accent varieties of English share a pretty universal vocabulary, grammar and syntax when written. It is one language with varieties.

But actually there have been Englishes, Germans, Frenches, and so on, before standardisation in writing. And nothing has done more to codify and standardise hodgepodge dialects into languages than the translation of the Bible into the vernacular tongues.

The mighty King James Authorised Version did this for English. Partly a political project intended to build a conciliatory bridge between the contending Anglicans and Puritans of the Kingdom and to protect and defend the divine monarchy, the King James Authorised Version, building on the martyred William Tyndale’s earlier translation of portions of the Scriptures the translation emerged as a majestic literary work that has shaped the English language and culture for 400 years.

In another three days (October 31), we mark the 501st anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, dated by the time when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the Castle church door in Wittenberg on this day in 1517. Luther went on to translate the Bible into German. The Reformer went into the marketplaces and listened to street talk and made notes to capture German expression in ordinary everyday language.



Before Luther, the German language did not, in fact, exist. There was a large string of local dialects often unintelligible to one another. Educated Europeans spoke, wrote and read Latin so communication could easily take place at that level both within and between countries, to the extent that discreet states existed at the time. Luther invented literary German, devising a robust synthesis of great power and beauty. Later, German literary giants like Goethe and Nietzsche (an avowed atheist) acknowledged Luther’s influence.

The Bible has more often than not been the first book produced in native languages codifying in writing and standardising dialect strings into one coherent language. Late in the translation day, a Jamiekan Nyuu Testiment has been produced using the Cassidy-Jamaica Language Unit of the UWI writing system (di Kyasidi-JLU Sistim) with rigid consistency in phonetic spelling, that is, spelling like how the word sounds.

Jamiekan has its regional variations, too. The text translators and voicers for the audio have opted for a kind of urban, Rasta-flavoured version of Jamiekan that may not please everyone but which will drive the standardisation of the language along these lines.

We have the basis for the emergence of a robust full-bodied literature in standardised Jamiekan. And Jamiekan is a language with exceptional expressive power.

– Martin Henry is a university administrator. Email feedback to [email protected] .

LINK ORIGINAL: Jamaica Gleaner

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