Last month saw the annual award of the Man Booker Prize for Fiction, one of literatures most prestigious awards that has previously been bestowed on such literary greats as Salman Rushdie, Kingsley Amis, Margaret Atwood and Kazuo Ishiguro.
What was once restricted to authors from the Commonwealth, Ireland and Zimbabwe has been opened up to any English language novel since 2013 and has become an almost guaranteed path to fame and fortune for its recipients that far surpasses the £50, 000 prize money.
This year’s recipient, Marlon James, marked the first time a Jamaican author had won the prize.
James, a college professor at Macalester College in Minnesota, who won with his third novel, reportedly suffered 78 rejections before finally getting his debut novel, John Crow’s Devil, published in 2005.
His winning novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings, is a fictional retelling of the assassination attempt on Bob Marley in Jamaica in 1976 and the crack wars of 1980s New York City. A violent epic told through a myriad of different voices – one of the aspects highlighted by the judges was James’s ability to master the use of such a broad range of voices ranging from biblical to a core of Jamaican Patois running through the book.
Jamaican Patois is a creole language that began development in the 1600s as a result of the exposure of West and Central African slaves to the various dialects of British English spoken by their masters and enslavers.
It has its roots in those African languages, mainly Akan or Twi, mixed together with Spanish, Portuguese and Scots, Irish and English. Linguistically, a creole language is defined as a stable natural language that develops from a pidgin, which in turn becomes the first language of children bringing with it a fully developed vocabulary and grammatical system.
Historically, creole languages were given little attention by Europeans who considered creoles to be nothing more than crude dialects. Modern linguists now understand that creole languages are indeed separate and distinct, fully formed languages with their own distinct grammatical structures and independent vocabularies.
From London to Jamrock and back again
Modern day Jamaica still exists in a complex linguistic situation.
English is the official language and is the only language used in the education system, yet nearly all Jamaicans speak patois most of the time, barring very formal situations and a child’s first exposure to English or Jamaican Standard English outside of media is in the education system.
The issue of bilingualism is constantly at the forefront of Jamaican life; all official government matters are conducted in English yet a 2007 survey found 36.5% of the population considered themselves monolingual in Patois with only 46.4% considering themselves truly bilingual.
As such there are mounting calls for more inclusion of Patois in government communications and throughout the education system.
Interestingly, in recent years, a complete reversal of fortune has occurred, with Jamaican Patois exerting a huge influence on the dialect being spoken amongst youngsters in London, with linguists observing that this new dialect, called Multicultural London English, is rapidly replacing Cockney as London’s dialect.
That a language born out of such appalling circumstances could survive to in turn exert influence on the language of London, the capital city of the global power whose quest for power caused such misery on a tiny plantation island five thousand miles away is one of the fascinating aspects of linguistics.