what language

Valerie Bloom - 28 June 2006

As a jamaican born writer, I use both English and Jamaican Patois in my work. These are the two languages spoken in Jamaican. Like most bi-lingual writers, I had to make a decision early in my writing career. Do I write solely in Standard English in order to reach a wider audience or do I use my first language and accept that most people wouldn't spend the time or effort to try to understand what I'm saying?

In the end, many of my poems choose the language they wanted to be written in. I'd sometimes start a poem in English and find it would not progress beyond the first line. I'd switch to Patois and the poem would practically write itself. The same was true the other way around.

Then too, the language a person grows up with is an inherent part of their character and I could no more easily jettison the Patois than I could sever a digit. And I needn't have worried about having an audience. The reading public turned out to be more adventurous than I gave them credit for. On a trip to Russia, I was presented with a collection of my poems, including ones written in Patois, lovingly translated into Russian by a group of school children. I receive letters from school children every week saying how much they enjoy the poems they have been reading, many of which are in Patois.

Yet, when a couple of my poems were included in the GCSE syllabus, there was a letter from a disgruntled man protesting that the poems had no place on the syllabus as they weren't English.

I know some poets object to their poems being studied for exams, but accepting that poems are on the syllabus, should they be entirely written in English or is there scope for material from Robert Burns, Aime Cesaire and Linton Kwesi Johnson? And if there isn't, where does that leave Shakespeare? I'd love to know what you think.

By the way, if you're reading this John, you're right. Griot (pronounced greeoh)is of French origin and is a West African travelling poet, musician and storyteller.


How ignorant of that man to complain about your poems being included on the syllabus. Doesn't he know that language is a flexible thing, always changing and developing, taking on influences from here, there and everywhere, mixing and blending? Every time there is a new edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, there are hundreds of 'new' words added. There is no ONE English and all languages are richer for what they learn from each other.

Thank you Aina. You are so right about languages being richer for the interaction with others. The Jamaican poet Louise Bennet says it very succinctly in her poem 'Bans O' Killin'.

What is the poem Bans o Killin about? I'm sorry to confess I don't know the work of Louise Benet, but I would like to find out. I can't find her name in the Poetry Archive.

Add comment

Log in or register to post comments

Glossary term


Word order, and the way in which it works with grammatical structures.

A tour of the Archive with Sarah Tremlett

I may be a closet listophile. Just as I have always been fascinated by the way that unlikely groupings of authors...

Featured Guided Tours