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Rihanna is one of the biggest pop-stars on the planet, and her first single “Work” off of her new, critically acclaimed album “Anti” is no exception. It reverberated through car speakers, headphones, and dance halls throughout the world.
However, among the enthusiastic consumption of the song, the accompanying double-video, and the happy hips of club-goers everywhere, there were naysayers propagating sentiments which negated the quality and legitimacy of Rihanna’s hit. Mostly, they pointed towards what they deemed to be the incomprehensible lyrical content of the tune.
Along with the onslaught of criticism, more than a few people who seem to lack a genuine understanding of the words took the liberty to record their own haphazard covers. This prompted articles begging white people to stop recording covers of “Work” (along with Beyoncé’s hit song “Formation”). Both respectively celebrating discrete elements of distinct black cultures.
Thus, Rihanna’s “Work” held up a mirror to one of the quandaries of white privilege that so many people can’t seem to wrap their heads around–shaming and delegitimizing the culture of people of color is deeply problematic, even if you don’t understand the implications of how you’re doing it. So too is appropriating that very same culture for personal enjoyment or capital, while remaining similarly ignorant of its history and context.
One of the main words that insensitive reporters and twitter-users used to criticize the song, was “gibberish.” The lyrics, they said, were “literal gibberish,” they were “incoherent,” and “lazy.”
The line of logic used to critique Rihanna’s song is not new. Frankly, it’s nothing more than a thinly veiled form of the very same racism which has permeated discussions of language, music, and culture since America’s genesis.
Gibberish, for those who do not know, is defined by Merriam-Webster dictionary as “unintelligible or meaningless language,” or “foolish, confused, or meaningless words.” “Work” is none of the above–it is a song crafted in Jamaican Patois*. A distinct English-based Creole language, with its own syntax, grammar, and vocabulary.
Suzanne Romaine, professor of linguistics and author of the book “Pidgin and Creole Languages,” sat down with BTRtoday to explain the significance and intricacies of these distinct tongues. She explicates that the Creole language is a nativized Pidgin language, one which has expanded to fit the communicative need of a collective community. A Pidgin language is one formed by members of two or more groups of different languages, in order to find common ground for cross-cultural communication. These languages can arise wherever disparate groups with a necessity for communicating with one another might come into contact.
Romaine elaborates on these dialects, and discusses precisely what makes them such compelling and important tools for linguists to study, and communities to utilize.
“As some of the newest languages on earth, Pidgins and Creoles raise fundamental questions about the evolution of complex systems, the creativity of the human mind, and about the origins of language in general,” she notes.
These languages are used as the main mode of communication by millions of people across the world. However, they still often lack the endorsement of arbiters in official spheres.
Jeff Seigel, another linguist and author of “The Emergence Of Pidgin And Creole Languages,” astutely points to the ways in which these languages are characterized as inferior or incorrect, and the damaging and dangerous repercussions of these misconceptions.
“When it comes to Pidgin and Creoles, and also nonstandard dialects like African American English, people have a totally different view because they say that they’re just incorrect English–it leads to all this terrible rhetoric,” Seigel describes. “It’s sort of the last bastion of acceptable racism. You can make fun of people’s language and somehow that’s not so bad, but if you look at it deep down it really is a kind of racism.”
Incorporating pre-existing vocabulary and transforming it is really no different from the early forms of Romance languages, which at the time of their conception were once thought to be gross debasements of Latin.
Romaine recapitulates that, “For a long time, even scholars ignored Pidgin and Creole in the belief that they were not real languages, but were instead bastardized, primitive, corrupted, or inferior versions of the languages to which they appeared most closely related.”
Both linguists emphasize the importance in eradicating these atavistic ideas of Creole and Pidgin being subordinate forms of language. The most effective step for doing so, they suggested, would be validating children’s mother-tongues in educational contexts.
The general rule for education is to work from what is known to what is unknown. So when students enter a classroom and are instructed to leave their mother-tongues at the door, their ability to absorb new information is jeopardized, and furthermore their self-esteem and self-worth suffer.
Romaine references a potentially damaging directional notice she observed in a classroom in Papua New Guinea, which advised students that, “To speak English was ‘good,’ to speak Tok Pisin [Papua New Guinea pidgin] was ‘bad,’ but to speak tok ples (i.e. vernacular languages) was ‘worst.’”
Seigel enthusiastically points to Jamaica as an example of a place which is embracing these native languages rather than shaming them.
“In Jamaica, they finally got around a lot of these attitudes,” he points out. “They’re teaching kids to read and write in Patois.”
Jamaica’s decision to begin teaching Patois in schools exemplifies tolerance, understanding, and patience. These qualities must be used tenets for moving through the ignorance, insensitivity, and fear which too often paralyzes productive conversation and acceptance surrounding issues of race and culture.
If not, we will continue to live in a world where Justin Bieber grows dreadlocks and thinks it’s okay.
*The song may also incorporate Baja, which is a Creole language related to Jamaican Patois that is specifically spoken in Barbados.