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Q&A with Stanford Humanities Center international visitor Celia Blake

Celia Blake is an attorney-at-law and a Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica. With a Master of Laws and a PhD in linguistics, she specializes in two distinct academic streams: forensic linguistics (the study of the confluence of language and the law), and insolvency, corporate law, and financial regulation.

Published in both areas of academic specialization, Blake has spent the last 15 years developing new research on the impact of linguistic factors on the administration of justice within Commonwealth Caribbean contexts. A key focus of her research has been the role language rights play in improving the situation of Creole vernacular speakers in the English-dominant legal system. As Chair of the International Centre for Caribbean Language Rights Research, she was instrumental in formulating a language rights policy charter which sets out model rights for speakers of Caribbean Creole languages. In 2015, she presented at the inaugural Faculty of Law symposium on linguistic disenfranchisement in the legal system, and she has most recently presented at the Society for Caribbean Linguistics Conference 2016 on issues of language and credibility in the judicial process in Jamaica.

As part of her contribution to catalyzing language reform in the justice system, Blake has developed courses in language and the law aimed at both linguistics and law students. She has also published on insolvency law reform in Jamaica, as well as financial regulation and financial regulatory governance in the Caribbean. In addition to teaching and research, Blake has held several public service and international appointments including Commissioner at the Financial Services Commission, director at the Bank of Jamaica, and legal consultant to the Government of Uganda.

During her fellowship as an international visitor at the Stanford Humanities Center, Blake answered a few questions about the status of Jamaican patois, the role of ideology in deciding what counts as a language, and the rights accorded to speakers of minority languages.

An official language in 67 countries, English is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world. Yet if it breaks into dozens of regional variants, some mutually unintelligible, is it still a single language? Who decides what counts as English and what doesn’t? Why?

You have raised the question of what is a language versus a dialect. Many people may consider their speech to be a dialect or variant of a particular language because they believe what they speak is similar in some way to that language. People may also consider that their speech is a dialect of a language because they share a common identity with speakers of that language even though their speech and that language are not similar or linguistically related.

There are situations, too, where even though languages are structurally similar and indeed speakers of these languages may understand each other very well, they do not regard themselves as speaking the same language or dialects of the same language. Norwegian and Swedish are good examples of the latter situation. Some speech varieties, despite being a systematic sound communication system for a community or population, may not be regarded as a ‘language’. Many Caribbean creoles fall within this category. As you may be realizing, the word ‘language’ and ‘dialect’ are ideologically driven and charged.

What is or is not a language and hence what counts or not as English, and what speakers may perceive as a dialect of any given language have a great deal to do with what speakers within a speech community believe about their speech and the affinities they may share with speakers of other linguistic systems. This is why linguists perhaps prefer to use the terms ‘language varieties’ or ‘speech varieties’ instead of the value-laden words languages or dialects which, in lay language, tend to import beliefs and suggest hierarchies of linguistic systems.

In Jamaica, much of the population speaks what is locally known as “patois.” How does patois differ from English? What is its official status in Jamaica and internationally?

The Jamaican vernacular, locally referred to as patois, derives much of its vocabulary from English. It differs significantly from English, however, at the deeper levels of language structure. For example, the grammatical category of the simple past tense, marked in its regular form in English by Verb + ed, is “zero marked” in Jamaican, which relies on context to signal this tense. Another category of distinction is the way in which the languages mark plural nouns. In Jamaican, this is marked by the word dem after the noun, whereas in English, it is marked by sound variants signaled usually by the addition of s at the end of the noun: rats, boys, roses.

In addition, Jamaican does not rely on an equivalent of the verb “to be” in expressing states. The English sentence, “I am sick” would be rendered Mi sik in Jamaican. Although Jamaican has acquired much of its vocabulary from English, its vowel system differs from standard varieties of English, and words from English may not always perform the same grammatical function as they do in English. The word, him, in English, functions as an object pronoun; the cognate word in Jamaican functions as a subject pronoun (as well as an object pronoun): Him go market yeside (English: He went to the market yesterday). Authors such as Beryl Bailey in her work on Jamaican Creole Syntax, and Frederic Cassidy in Jamaica Talk, provide general descriptions of the structure of Jamaican and how it differs from English.

Jamaican or patois is not officially recognized in Jamaica. By this I mean (i) it does not have any legal status as an official language in Jamaica, and (ii) it is not the acceptable language variety for use in official public formal situations. It is not, for example, sanctioned as a language of instruction in the education system or as a generally acceptable language of communication in or with the public sector. So whether by law or by practice, Jamaican has no official status at home. This perhaps accounts, at least in part, for its general lack of recognition in other jurisdictions across the globe.

What percentage of the Jamaican population speaks patois exclusively? What rights do patois-only speakers have under Jamaican and international law?

A nationwide survey conducted in 2007 by the Jamaican Language Unit at the University of the West Indies, Mona, indicated that over one third of the sample surveyed were monolingual speakers of Jamaican. It is likely that even some persons who are bilingual do not command very high levels of proficiency in English.

The laws of Jamaica do not expressly provide language rights for speakers of Jamaican. Fair trial rights contained in the Constitution of Jamaica stipulate that any person charged with an offence should be informed of the charge in a language he understands and is entitled to an interpreter at trial, at the state’s expense, if they do not understand or speak the language used in court. The official language of the court is English. I am not aware, however, of any case in Jamaica in which the right to an interpreter has been invoked in relation to an accused who is a Jamaican-dominant speaker. It may be that because many Jamaicans have traditionally considered Jamaican as a form of English, the constitutional provision is not perceived as being applicable to speakers of Jamaican. It is interesting to note that although the legislature in Jamaica contemplated a proposal to include language as one of the bases upon which discrimination should be prohibited in the Constitution, it was not ultimately included as one of the prohibited factors in the final draft of the bill that was enacted in 2011.

Few international law instruments deal exclusively or mainly with language rights. The two main ones, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities and the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, contemplate language rights for linguistic minorities, i.e., linguistic groups who comprise a numerically smaller fraction of a population relative to some larger group. The situation in Jamaica is that Jamaican, though non-dominant in terms of its status, is the majority language. International instruments such as these named conventions do not contemplate language situations such as the one existing in Jamaica. Apart from this, international conventions typically have no legal force in Jamaica unless they have been incorporated by local legislation subsequent to being signed and ratified. This means that even where Jamaica is a signatory to an international convention containing a linguistic anti-discrimination provision, the provision will normally not be legally effective unless there is domestic legislation enabling its application to the country.

What prevents the recognition of Jamaican as a discrete language?

In my view, residual negative attitudes. Popular attitudes have, in fact, shifted significantly. Many people are now in favor of Jamaican having official status alongside English. I think, though, that the traditional ideology that the Jamaican language is a version of English persists. So Jamaican is still not regarded as a distinct language and not viewed positively by some pockets of the population who strongly resist official recognition of Jamaican. I also think that because Jamaican remains a largely oral language, this may be a factor that negatively affects its recognition as a language. These factors relate to the language ideology held by perhaps a vocal, influential group. I think there has to be a yet greater shift in ideology and attitudes to the Jamaican language before we can get a general consensus that Jamaican is a language in its own right. But I also think that language planning efforts, such as popularizing the writing system developed for the language and deliberate use of the language in some of the domains still reserved for English, can contribute to such a shift.