Standardizing Jamaican Creole

A link I recently encountered is the Jamaican Language Unit.

As you may or may not know, many inhabitants of Jamaica, including the late Bob Marley, are native speakers of Jamaican Creole. As with most creoles, Jamaican Creole is often considered to be a “degenerate” form of English, but the Jamaican Language Unit is working to establish Jamaican Creole as an alternate written standard.

It’s interesting that the first task is to establish a spelling system. Like other “oral languages”, Jamaican Creole has to first standardize itself with written conventions. Depending on how many actual dialects there are, this can be difficult. For instance, the spelling convention says that the sound /h/ is phonemic in only a few dialects.

It also requires speakers to shift their perceptions of their own language from something used just at home or in the local community to one that can be used for all functions, even potentially for news stories and technical articles. Fortunately, Jamaican Creole has been used as a language of poetry and music, so there is already a literary culture.

I wish them luck. We already know from the standardization of the Tok Pisin Creole of Papua New Guinea that a creole can become a written standard.

Could it ever happen in the U.S.?

I also wonder if this could even happen in the United States with forms like AAVE (African American Vernacular English), Appalachian English, etc. One factor in Jamaica’s favor is that the vast majority of inhabitants are native speakers of Jamaican Creole (this is also true for languages like Haitian (French) Creole which is also being codified as a written standard). In contrast, although there are large pockets of non-standard English speakers in the U.S., the plurality (if not the majority) are speaking standard English, and almost all people born in the United States are able to understand Standard English.

Another factor, oddly, against the standardization of the non-standard forms in the United States is their mutual intelligibility with Standard English. American Standard English speakers may mimic regional accents or show disdain for “bad grammar”, but for the most part they can understand the non-standard forms in the U.S.

On the other hand, some forms like Jamaican Creole and true Scots are so divergent from Standard English that providing a dictionary and grammar begins to seem like a sensible idea.

Finally there is resistance in both the Standard English community and the speaker communities the idea that forms like AAVE or Appalachian English could function like a “real language”. When the Oakland School Board proposed support for bilingual education, the concept was generally ridiculed and inspired parodies such as Da Ebonics Page. I admit even I was a little dubious (it does depend on what you mean by “bilingual education”). In any case, there’s a lot attitude adjustment to be done before AAVE can become a literary standard.

But that could all change someday. And if it ever does, either Jamaica or Scotland could serve as a model of how to turn a “colloquial” language into a written form.

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