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New Tongues

The politics of patois in the new millennium

While listening to a radio transmission in Kingston, Stuart Hall suddenly felt lost. It was the early 1970s, and Hall had temporarily returned to his home country of Jamaica after two decades abroad. Back in 1951, Hall had won a Rhodes Scholarship to the University of Oxford, at a time when Jamaica was still a British colony. Jamaica won its independence in 1962, propelling incremental changes in daily culture one couldn’t necessarily document remotely. But back in his former home, Hall heard one of these changes firsthand: radio hosts speaking in Jamaican Patois.

“I couldn’t believe my ears that anybody would be quite so bold as to speak patois, to read the news in that accent,” Hall wrote in 1995. “My entire education, my mother’s whole career had been specifically designed to prevent anybody at all, and me in particular, from reading anything of importance in that language.”

If you’re not in Caribbean circles, the word “patois” may sound familiar because of childish debates surrounding Rihanna’s “Work.” Many misidentified lyrics from the song at first as “gibberish” and then as Bajan patois because Rihanna is from Barbados. (To end this once and for all, the song is mostly in English with a few lines of Jamaican Patois, written by the Jamaican producer Boi-1da.)

Part of the Windrush generation (the first significant group of West Indians to emigrate to Britain and America in the ’50s), Hall was an intrepid designer of a burgeoning field called cultural studies, a discipline that would alter the political course of sociology. His bewilderment, which affected him enough that he wrote about it 20 years later, is still palpable today.

No American analogue quite matches the depth of Hall’s awe upon hearing patois on the radio, mostly because American dialects aren’t as discrete as West Indian patois. But for the sake of understanding, here’s a hypothetical: Imagine President Obama bracing at the dais to deliver a prime-time speech. Millions of Americans are listening, and those listeners expect Obama to speak in standard American English (for the president, trimmed with a subtle Midwestern glide). Instead, what rolls forth is AAVE (African American Vernacular English; “we finna pull up” instead of “we are coming”). Average Americans would probably glean the meaning of his hypothetical message whether they speak AAVE or not, by virtue of the similarities between it and its mother language. But aspects of tone, nuance, vocabulary, cadence — all the technical distinctions that compose the covert beauty of nonstandard languages — would be lost on a certain tier of listener.

That’s what languages and dialects do, really; they sort, organize, and, most effectively, segregate speakers. And that’s in part why the proud use of patois, which has thousands of speakers across once-colonized lands all over the world, can stoke such an impassioned — or, in the case of Hall, awed — response.

In the Caribbean, patois languages were formed by the economic stress and social control of slavery and colonization. Patois in the Americas, sometimes called creoles, contain elements from four linguistic backgrounds: Romance languages, Arabic, West and Central African, and indigenous American languages. Many patois are mutually intelligible because of shared root languages, but from island to island, patois are distinct: Barbados has its own, as does Martinique, Haiti, Jamaica, and so on. One fundamental commonality of patois is grammar, which has no tense for time. And notably, patois are “unlettered,” meaning they aren’t written down, though you often hear spoken languages rudely categorized as “illiterate.”

The features of patois, generated by the resourceful genius of enslaved West Indians, make them the most disparaged languages in the world. For much of the history of the study of linguistics, patois weren’t considered “real” languages at all; at most, they were seen as well-developed rural slangs, Darwinian subordinates of the European languages from which they’d sprung. Renowned European linguists like Albert Dauzat and Charles Bruneau approached the study of “popular languages” with a mix of curiosity, condescension, and fetishization. Even the name is a demonstration of supremacist judgment: “Patois” emerged in 17th-century imperial French, derived from “patter,” meaning “noise produced by two objects making contact.” The word is loaded with the flat, permanent sentiment of Enlightenment-era racism.

A number of Caribbean islands gained independence by the mid-20th century. This newfound sovereignty fostered intellectual movements like that in Hall’s work, and in that of contemporaries like Martiniquan poet Aimé Césaire and Jamaican satirist Louise Bennett-Coverley. Academics worked against a backdrop of fiercely nationalist musicians like the Jamaican Bob Marley, and Kassav' from Guadeloupe. They were all experimenting with producing in their respective native patois — a language imperialism had created, and then extensively policed.

In the Caribbean of the 20th century, revolution served as renaissance; in this millennium, too, the increased, complicated visibility of patois in popular culture surfaces important questions of identity to young speakers. Four generations after the Windrush group, millennial members of the West Indian diaspora are choosing to center patois in lucid ways. “There is a growing realisation that patois can’t be silenced if authentic characteristics of Jamaica and Jamaicans are to be achieved,” André Wright wrote in The Guardian in 2015. Wright’s op-ed on Jamaican novelist Marlon James’s novel A Brief History of Seven Killings, which was written in English and Jamaican Patois, isn’t a review per se; it’s a calibration of realities facing the 21st-century West Indian creative. James had to employ a strategy of escape, leaving Jamaica and its mores — like homophobia and dismissal of patois — to literally publish the novel, and to approach a truer shade of Jamaican identity.

Pop culture and middle-class migration have consistently proven the most effective vehicles for translating patois and its culture to worldwide audiences. In 2016, genres like dancehall and soca, which come from the spurned lower castes, are influencing massive pop successes, from Justin Bieber to Beyoncé. Jamaica’s Popcaan has crossed over, like Beenie Man and Sean Paul before him during the early aughts; non-Caribbean acts like Sia and Drake have featured Jamaican acts on bona fide summer hits. Earlier this year, Tommy Hilfiger released a “rasta” ready-to-wear line. And of course, there’s Diplo. Speaking to Trinidadian writer Deidre Dyer at The Fader, soca artist Machel Montano speculated, “I think the debut for soca and Trinidad culture is, by extension, that of Caribbean unity … Now the world is slowly being introduced to another side of the Caribbean via carnival and soca.”

Montano’s optimism obscures, to an extent, the troubling optics of this global mainstreaming of patois. For one, music industry gatekeepers have attempted to flatten dancehall into a cartoonish, whitewashed genre called “trop-house.” And though many Westerners resort to saccharine, bizarre appraisals of patois as naturally “melodic,” the language is actually quite sophisticated, and so much more than an accumulation of singsong. It’s just hard to understand patois if you aren’t immersed in the community that speaks it. For the community that does, the internet makes a new island of understanding. I came across Haitian V about five years ago on YouTube. The gloriously named 32-year-old comedian (he is Vladimir Barthelemow Theolonious Rasputin Slocumb Calixte III, or @JustVlad online) writes skits that show almost disturbingly accurate scenes of Haitian slapstick comedy. In one series, he riffs on HBO’s Taxicab Confessions, breaking out into Haitian Creole when he’s exasperated. “Get Maman’ou,” he curses when one rider stiffs him. The comments often show young users responding enthusiastically in the same language.

Calixte is just one of the many Western-living West Indian online entertainers whose work is circulated on Vine, Instagram, and YouTube among young, yearning West Indians. There’s Olivier Eugene, a.k.a. Mr. 509 from New Jersey, and Prince Marni in London. Buddy Billz is prolific at making patois versions of memes. A series by user Zabz on YouTube features dubbed Jamaican Patois translations of Disney movie plots. The nuts and bolts of the story are the same, but patois gets across the uniquely brassy, biting quality of Caribbean expression. Caribbean cinema, following the low-budget, straight-to-DVD precedent set by Nollywood, is flourishing in islands like Jamaica and Trinidad.

The sensation Stuart Hall felt, immobilized by the progress of his home country while working in the colonial crown, was clearly a premonition of the place of patois in new media. “[Jamaica] had passed through the most profound cultural revolution,” he continued in 1995. “It was not any longer trying to be something else, trying to match up to some other image, trying to become something it could not.”

The job of a linguist is to observe, but it is also to standardize, to contrive unifying logic to the chaotic channels humans use to express information. Standardization is also the work of the government. To this day, Haiti is the only country in the Caribbean to designate its patois, Haitian Creole, an official language. (Aruba recognizes Papiamento, a Dutch Creole, as an official language, but the island is a part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands). Most other Caribbean nations, including Haiti itself, may recognize patois as the dominant vernacular, but ghettoize them as “unfit” for public speech. Denial of patois’s power subsumes the culture. Michel Martelly, the Haitian pop star turned president, would code-switch between Haitian Creole and French depending on which class of people he was addressing during his 2010 campaign. His practices were reviled by the parties opposing, yet it was Martelly who won the popular vote.

Learning to speak a nation’s official tongue is a kind of secular citizenship, and so parents prod their wet babies into verbal expression as quickly as possible. Choosing to speak unofficial languages in official spaces means opening yourself up to censorship. This can happen obnoxiously (think of the white teacher mocking the black student for slipping into AAVE), or inhumanely (think of the thousands of Spanish speakers detained because they can’t understand the police). Language is communication, but as a system, it can communicate suppression: Official languages corroborate an idealized identity of a nation’s people — relegating unofficial languages, dialects, and regional accents to the level of unauthorized inferiors. Language indexes culture, and creoles point to the concept of the fringes.

There is no dearth of elite writing on the political potential of patois. Today it has new lay custodians. Digitally proficient third- and fourth-generation Caribbean immigrants living abroad have transitioned patois, and its accompanying “of the people” aesthetic, into the lingua franca of youth culture. These are the kids writing lengthy Tumblr posts about the radical importance of patois, in patois. They understand that what is endemic to patois — that it’s unofficial — makes it ideal for those sorts of radical communications one wants to prevent from being widely understood.

Beyond the internet, cities like London, New York, Toronto, Montreal, and Miami are now populated by young West Indians radically reclaiming the culture and language their parents’ generation wanted to hide. This is reappropriation of the Afrofuturist kind — reinscribing the Western cities that were the seat of forced assimilation. It’s not a stretch to say that certain pockets of any of these metropolitan posts feel like they’re in the islands proper. Miami has a “Little Haiti” and haberdasheries with signs written in Creole; Brooklyn’s Haitian population numbers over 100,000. At this point, London may even be developing its own patois, a second-generation language cobbled together from original creoles, specifically Jamaican. Traditions like mas, carnivals descended from West Indian resistance, are now institutions outside of the Caribbean.

Just this month, I visited MAMI Market, a Brooklyn artist marketplace conceptualized around the goddess Mami Wata, who has avatars in Yoruba and Antillean religions. Patois is the language of vodou, two practices scorned equally by West Indians and Westerners. “MAMI is about dissolving boundaries,” the Haitian artist Dyani Douze told The Fader. Forced into a boundary, the use of patois improvises a private space, even in plain air.

Urban infrastructure senses this, too. You’ll notice, if you spend time in one of these Western metropolitan areas, that more and more, signs are being produced in creoles. A few years ago, New York City’s MTA introduced Haitian Creole signage in public transportation and public hospitals. In Toronto, an effort to increase Jamaican patois interpreters has gained ground. Seeing patois written out on administrative communication jars as much as it excites. The visibility of patois is a trend to be guarded closely. To make visible is to sanction in the two opposite senses of the word — to permit, but also to control.

In casual settings, though, at home or among friends, speaking in patois hardly feels like a political decision. My family is from Haiti, and when we slide into Haitian Creole, we are signaling comfort. We aren’t subscribing to colorist anxiety — not consciously, anyway. This is the people’s vulgar tongue, the language through which emotion and meaning can be most accurately expressed. Coming across patois in books, by contemporaries like James and Haitian author Edwidge Danticat, is wholly different. Ours is a language that was not meant to be written, borne from a people who were not meant to record their own selves.