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The University of the West Indies

at Mona, Jamaica

The Plight of Patois Speakers in the UK Legal System

When, in the 1950s, the poet, Louise Bennett, wrote the most amusing poems about the migration of Jamaicans to England in ‘Colonization in Reverse’, she described the effect that the influx of Jamaicans would have in England. Despite her use of Jamaican patois to tell the tale, she did not explicitly mention that the migration of patois to the UK with its speakers would contribute to the ‘devilment a England’ which she predicted. But researchers, Celia Brown-Blake and Paul Chambers, have provided evidence that, despite an apparent similarity between patois and English, communication between patois and English speakers in the UK legal process has been bedevilled by comprehension problems arising from patios/ English distinctions.

Patois/English Communication Trouble: An Example

Brown-Blake and Chambers examined audio and written transcripts of pre-trial interviews between functionaries in the UK criminal justice system and patois speakers. In some cases there were no interpreters. In others where interpreters had been provided, interpretation occurred only when there was an obvious communication breakdown in the interview. The researchers identified several instances of lack of communication and miscommunications which are explained by linguistic differences between patois and English. A striking example came from an official written transcript of an interview between a police officer and a patois-speaking witness. The relevant part quotes the witness as saying, “When I heard the shot (bap, bap) I drop the gun and then I run”. The audio equivalent of this transcription was: “Wen mi ier di bap bap, mi drap a groun an den mi staat ron” (Gloss: “When I heard the bap bap [the shots], I fell to the ground and then I started to run”.).

Legal Problems

The researchers explain that language-based communication problems can have significant legal consequences. Contrary to what the witness’s statement actually implies, the incorrect transcription noted above puts the witness in an unfavourable legal position – possessing an illegal firearm or being an accomplice to a shooting.

The Root of the Problem

The communication trouble and the potential adverse legal result stem from a failure on the part of both functionaries in the UK legal system and patois speakers to require interpreters. This failure goes back to a traditional perception by Jamaicans and UK justice system functionaries that Jamaican patois is a version of English. And what an embarrassment it would be for a reverse colonizing Jamaican to call for an interpreter and in so doing admit to not understanding English!

Solving the Problem

As attitudes of Jamaicans to patois change and it is regarded with more pride, it may be that patois speakers will insist on their right to an interpreter when they communicate with persons within the UK justice system. Even if this is long in coming, the research is emphasizing the need for continuous interpretation during pre-trial interviews and for translation services to be available at the transcription stage.

Celia Brown-Blake is a Lecturer in Law in the Department of Management Studies, an attorney at law and a linguist. She researches and is published in the area of language and the law.

Paul Chambers is a patois/English public service interpreter registered with the Institute of Linguistics in the UK. He has been interpreting in the UK for over eight years and has interpreted in numerous pre-trial interviews involving Jamaican patois speakers. He also does court interpreting in the Magistrates Courts and Crown Court.