KINGSTON, Jamaica – When English teacher Faith Linton first proposed translating the Bible into Jamaica’s patois tongue in the late 1950s, most people shook their heads.
Some on the deeply Christian island believed it was sacrilegious. Others opposed it because the mixture of English and West African languages was widely disdained by the elites as a coarse linguistic stepchild to English, the only official language in this former British colony.
“There was shock at the mere suggestion,” said Linton, now 81, a longtime board member of the Bible Society of the West Indies. “People were deeply ashamed of their mother tongue. It was always associated with illiteracy and social deprivation.”
Decades later, Linton’s vision is becoming a reality: After years of meticulous translation from the original Greek, the Bible Society is releasing in Jamaica print and audio CD versions of the first patois translation of the New Testament, or “Di Jamiekan Nyuu Testiment.”
For patois expert Hubert Devonish, a linguist who is coordinator of the Jamaican Language Unit at the University of the West Indies, the Bible translation is a big step toward getting the state to eventually embrace the Creole language created by slaves.
“We’ve now produced a major body of literature in the language, whatever people may think about it one way or the other. And that is part of the process of convincing people that this thing is a serious language with a standard writing system,” Devonish said.
The Rev. Courtney Stewart, general secretary of the regional Bible society, said there is a widespread conviction that Scripture is best understood in a person’s spoken tongue.
“It’s extremely powerful for people to hear Scripture in their own language, the language they speak and think in. It goes straight to their hearts and people say they are able to visualize it in a way they’ve never experienced before,” Stewart said.
On the other side, some religious leaders, Anglophiles and other critics characterize Jamaican patois as a rowdy, ever-changing vernacular or “lazy English” that is fine for the playground or market but entirely inappropriate in a place of worship.
“Patois is not potent enough to be able to carry the meaning of the Gospel effectively. It just does not have the capacity to properly reflect the word of God,” said Bishop Alvin Bailey, who leads the evangelical Holiness Christian Church in the southern city of Portmore.
Despite the low view some Jamaicans hold for patois, nearly all islanders, regardless of class, can speak and understand it. Those who speak standard English fluently, mostly people from the middle and upper classes, tend to use patois for emphasis, to affect a down-to-earth persona or to talk to someone of a lower class.
Clive Forrester, who teaches the Jamaican tongue at Canada’s York University, said the biggest obstacle to launching a patois Bible on the island has always been a psychosocial one, not a linguistic one.
“The language can handle any concept or idea in the New Testament. It’s the average Jamaican speaker who has a hard time accepting Jamaican Creole in written contexts and especially one as formal as the Bible,” he said.