Patois Bible in Pan-African and Pan-Caribbean context

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Mon Jun 30 12:26:06 UTC 2008

Patois Bible in Pan-African and Pan-Caribbean context
published: Sunday | June 29, 2008

Gosnell L. Yorke, Contributor

WHAT IS true mainly of the coastal regions of Africa and elsewhere in
the world is also true of the Caribbean as a whole - including
Jamaica. And that is: we have witnessed the not-yet-fully understood
global linguistic phenomenon involving what scholars have called the
"pidginisation" and, ultimately, the "creolisation" of the various
languages of Europe and elsewhere - be it Dutch, English, French or
Spanish in the case of the Caribbean. As we know, these four
aforementioned languages were imperially imposed on our African
ancestors who were forced, against their collective wills, to toil as
slaves on several sugar plantations throughout the Caribbean; to work
as hewers of wood and drawers of water.

Because our ancestors, by and large, were not allowed to live and work
together in their ethnic groups (or tribes), they were not able to
communicate with each other through the use of their mother tongues -
be it Akan, Balanta, Igbo or Yoruba from West Africa or wherever. This
situation not only helped to discourage our enslaved ancestors from
plotting their escape from their masters' dehumanising treatment (or
worse) but it also meant that our ancestors were forced to creatively
adopt and adapt the language of their European masters as well. This
created a complex situation in which the various European languages,
serving as lexifier languages, were blended with the various African
mother tongues to produce, over time, some new bona fide languages we
now call Creoles (not dialects).

'Divide and rule'

That is, pidginisation and later creolisation were made inevitable by
the slave masters' linguistic policy of 'divide and rule'. In
sociolinguistic terms, the more powerful European 'High' or H language
was brought into contact with the relatively powerless African 'Low'
or L language. This accounts for the fact that the Caribbean is now
one of the best places on the planet to study the creolisation of such
European languages. For example, out of a total of about 80 Creoles
spoken worldwide, about 30 of them are spoken right here in the
Caribbean, alone.

And since the various Bible translation agencies in the Caribbean are
driven by the defensible conviction that all 6,000 or so languages
currently spoken in the world at large are equal, that English is only
one of them, and that God does speak most compellingly to each of us
in our mother tongue or heart language, the language in which we
dream, it is not at all surprising that the Haitian Bible Society, the
Bible Society of The Netherlands Antilles (based in CuraƧao) and the
Bible Society in the Eastern Caribbean (based in Barbados) have
already translated and published, alone or in partnership with
Wycliffe Bible Translators Caribbean, the complete Bible or at least
the New Testament in some of the Caribbean creoles. In particular, we
already have the complete Bible in both Haitian Creole and Papiamento
(a Creole spoken in the Dutch Antilles); the New Testament with the
Psalms in St Lucian and Dominican patwa; the New Testament in Sranan
(a Creole spoken in Suriname), etc. In addition, there is ongoing
Bible translation work in the Creoles spoken in the French Antilles,
Belize, Guadeloupe and Martinique.

Ongoing work

In terms of Africa, for example, we already have the complete Bible in
Crioulo (a Portuguese-based creole spoken in Guinea-Bissau in West
Africa) and the New Testament in Seselwa, a creole spoken in The
Seychelles which is located in the Indian Ocean. In addition, there is
ongoing work in African creoles spoken in Cape Verde, a former
Portuguese colony located in the Atlantic Ocean (out West) and in
Mauritius, also located in the Indian Ocean (out east).

What I am saying, essentially, is that the ongoing translation of the
Bible into Jamaican (patois) spearheaded by the Bible Society of the
West Indies (based in Kingston) is really part of a much larger whole
and must not be viewed as either novel or earth-shaking in its

The truth is, it is part and parcel of a much larger whole. And much
of what is being said for and against the ongoing Patois Bible project
has either already played itself out elsewhere or is still doing so.
For example, some have embraced the idea wholeheartedly as a positive
development in that the affirmation or valorisation of one's creole or
language by way of Bible translation helps to boost one's sense of
self since the sacred Bible functions for many as a powerful
life-enhancing text and that having it in one's heart language or
mother tongue contributes substantially to one's own identity

But then there are also others who have raised the concerns that the
Creoles are sometimes too fluid in their writing systems or
orthographies to allow meaningful writing and reading in them, while
some have expressed the concern about the whole economics of it (it
being such an expensive venture).

Academic concerns

Still others have raised concerns about the academics of it in that
they assume that an emphasis on the creole in school will hamper the
scholastic development of young people who ought to be taught to speak
proper English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, or whatever, if they are
to succeed as students and later, as professionals in life. And there
is something to be said for that, of course.

On a larger scale and within the context of the Caribbean now in its
post-colonial phase, a region known not as a Bible Belt per se (as is
true of the Southern United States) but more so, perhaps, as a "Bible
Basin" since we are also ardent lovers of the Word (the Bible) as
well, such translations of the Bible should also be viewed, it seems
to me, as a positive post-independent and post-colonial development as
well. It is a way of asserting ourselves in the realm of language -
especially in light of the unrelenting forces of globalisation.

The question for some is this: if this self-assertion or sustained
drive towards self-determination has been done in the realm of music
and, to a lesser extent, perhaps, in religion as well, for example,
then why not in the realm of language too? Of course, the most
productive language policy for the Caribbean might well be one in
which the official languages of English, French, Spanish and Dutch and
the various locally created Creoles are taught and mastered -
producing a functional bilingualism among its speakers.

That is, in the case of Jamaica, it would and should not be either
English or Jamaican but both. Incidentally, of the six official
languages now spoken in the Caribbean, two of them are Creoles,
namely, Haitian and Papiamento. The other four are those European ones
already mentioned.

It is in this larger context in which we should place the ongoing
discussion (and even debate) about the merits or demerits of the Bible
Society of the West Indies translating the Bible into Jamaican

After all, Jesus himself is known to have spoken Aramaic, his own
mother tongue, and not only Hebrew, the language of the Jewish
Scriptures but (and if He did at all) also the two dominant languages
of his day, namely, the commonly-spoken Greek which was made possible
by the colonial exploits and exploitation of Alexander, the Great, who
lived and died before His time or Latin, the official language of the
conquering Romans-those who ruled the world when He both lived and
died; when He uttered His life-changing words and performed His
life-changing works.

And if Jesus showed no hesitation in embracing Aramaic, His mother
tongue, in His conduct and conversation with others around Him,
including when dying on the cross, then why should one hesitate do so
in Jamaican-if that just happens to be one's mother tongue?

Dr Gosnell L. York, is professor of religion in the School of Religion
and Theology at Northern Caribbean University (NCU) and a former
translation consultant with the Africa Area of the United Bible
Societies - the parent body of the Bible Society of the West Indies.

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