Parallel Space but Disparate Usage: Negotiating Language Use in a Bilingual Society

Article excerpt

As children my sister and I lived with our parents on a government agricultural station in rural Jamaica. The nearest playmates lived over three miles away. We were sent at ages seven and nine to a boarding school then staffed with mostly expatriate teachers from England. I can still hear the voices of the mothers of the two families we regularly played with during the holidays as they chided their offspring : "Why you don speak nicely like Janet and Beli ?" Generations of Jamaican children have had, and still know the experience of being chided, corrected, beaten when they spoke the Jamaican patois. One writer noted , "Trust me, I was not allowed to speak it at home, at school, in front of our parents." The ferocity of the debate around language use in Jamaica is deeply emotional, based on notions of social mobility, and often is not rooted in knowledge or logic.

The role of language as a manipulative, symbolic process is at the foundation of how we create a view of ourselves, how we create kinds of interactions and relationships and ultimately maintain a healthy personality which is the basis of a productive life. Helen Keller presents an interesting example of the process of language development. She was bund and deaf. When her teacher came to live with her clearly Helen was reacting intelligendy to her environment, exploring with the other three senses and attempting to have her desires met. Her teacher documents how she taught her words through touch and how as soon as Helen realized what she was doing, she immediately cooperated, wanting to know the words for everything around her. Without that access to language, Helen Keller could not have become the thinker who graduated from college, a sought after public speaker, and author of at least one book.

Jamaica is perhaps a society that functions very much in the oral mode but demands credentials in the written mode. Our ancestors from Songhai, Mali, Ghana, Ashanti, Dahomey, who created highly developed societies widiout recourse to the written word , were forced unto Caribbean plantations during slavery. When, in 1838, they found themselves free people, they embraced the access to the written word offered by the colonial education system because they saw dus as a stepping stone to social and economic advancement for their children, their families.

Language serves two basic purposes:

a) exploration and establishing of identity

b) communication between peoples

Professor Robert Le Page, distinguished professor of Creole language studies defines thus:

linguistic behaviour as a series of acts of identity in which people reveal both their personal identity and their search for social roles. Christie (2001) p.2

The failure of the Penn and Venebles expedition to capture the island of Hispaniola in 1655 led to Jamaica's first contact with the English Language. The invading army, unable and unwilling to turn tail and return to England, attacked the badly defended Spanish island colony of Jamaica instead. The development of the sugar economy and plantation slavery, the importation of hundreds of diousands of Africans to form the labour force, resulted in the evolution and present use, diree hundred and fifty years later, in a bilingual society, of two languages known as Standard Jamaican English (SJE) and Jamaican Creole (JC).

The modey group of solthers and sailors who came widi Cromwell's army introduced to Jamaica the English language . Other classes of Englishmen, and some Scots and Irish, added to the usage of a language which found itself in the most profound contact widi the languages of the West African work force, most regularly, the Ashanti Twi language. This contact over hundreds of years resulted in the creation of Jamaican Creole (JC) . Researchers have described this language as one with a grammar structure very similar to the Twi, and a vocabulary of mostly English words.

Under three hundred years of British colonial rule, the English language, along widi skin colour, the Parliament, the horse, the whip, the Anglican church, became part of a cluster of symbols of British cultural superiority and might. …