Carolyn Cooper | Language lessons at the pharmacy |

Carolyn Cooper | Language lessons at the pharmacy |

Once upon a time, pharmacies used to be specialist stores. Their only business was dispensing medicine. In 1920, Johnson & Johnson came up with the slogan, “Your Druggist is More Than a Merchant. Try the Drug Store First.” These days, pharmacies are usually located at the back of general stores that are owned by merchants selling a wide range of goods and services.

My favourite pharmacy is a stand-alone drug store. I particularly appreciate its efficiency in this time of lingering COVID-19. I don’t have to go into a crowded store to get to the pharmacy. Prescriptions are expertly processed in full view of the customer waiting at the counter. On a recent visit, as the pharmacist was preparing the bill, I heard her ask, “Why di printer nah work?” The question wasn’t addressed to me. It was simply an expression of frustration at the temporary malfunction of the machine.

All the same, I couldn’t resist responding with another question: “Yu don’t hear di prime minister seh dat di language of business suppose to be English?” We both had a good laugh and the other pharmacists joined in. For many of us, the spontaneous language of irritation is Jamaican, not English. In this instance it was a mixture of English and Jamaican: “why,” instead of “wa mek.” The pharmacist jokingly asked if she should have said, “Why is the printer not working?” Even though she was at work, she was not going to censure herself and speak only in English. After all, she was talking to herself. And it was not a sign of madness.


The same cannot be said for some of the people who read my columns religiously and think they can persuade me that writing in the Jamaican language is a complete waste of time. There’s a man who relentlessly emails me to make that point. At first, I was very mannersable and would try to reason with him. Then, I realised I was just encouraging him to harass me. Now, I ignore his emails. He persists nevertheless.

Like a tireless Jehovah’s Witness, this man keeps on doing the same thing over and over and seems to expect different results. His attempts at conversion are a complete failure. But that doesn’t stop him. Despite my annoyance with Jehovah’s Witnesses who keep on preaching to unlikely converts, I must big them up for taking the Jamaican language very seriously. In their zeal to win over unbelievers, they are fulfilling the biblical mission of spreading the gospel in all tongues, including Jamaican. There is a lot of material in the language on their website, And they use the specialist writing system no less!

A few weeks ago, my harasser-in-chief gleefully emailed me a Gleaner article published on May 26 with this headline, “Protect English as language of labour force, says PM.” It was a report on Andrew Holness’ speech at the opening of a Business Process Outsourcing Centre which I highlighted in my column last week. The subject line of the email was “now the matter is settled lol.” My harasser did not bother to send the two Gleaner editorials that were published shortly after that report. They made it quite clear that the matter of language and power in Jamaica was definitely not settled. Perhaps, he hadn’t seen them. I didn’t even bother to send them to him. That would be asking for trouble. Nuff more emails!

The editorial published on May 30 had a suspenseful headline: “English of course, but …” But what? The opening paragraph gives the answer: “Prime Minister Andrew Holness is unlikely to have been erecting straw men against whom to mount attacks. So, Mr Holness needs to clarify his recent remarks about English as Jamaica’s language of work and the context and circumstances of use of Jamaican Creole in the society.” The editorial makes a persuasive argument: “And if the prime minister says, with which, again, we agree, that English is going to be the primary language of commerce, then it has to be taught in a way that gives deep access to the majority for whom it is not their primary language.”


I once had a student who worked part-time at a call centre. She had carefully cultivated what is known as the General American accent. Sometimes, I had to remind her that she was not on the job and could speak normally in class. In a discussion about language, she tried to make a point about ‘pohwoh.’ I honestly had no idea what she was talking about. It turned out to be ‘patwa.’ She was so immersed in General American that she could no longer pronounce a basic word with the right Jamaican accent. Or, perhaps, she was just lisping like Anansi, playing fool fi ketch wise. In any case, this skill at sounding American is precisely what is valued in the Business Process Outsourcing sector.

According to the Outsource Accelerator website, “Close proximity, cultural compatibility and economic ties are essentially what draws in American companies to nearshore to Jamaica. Further, the country is also considered as the third-largest English speaking nation in the Western Hemisphere.” The Global Education Magazine tells a somewhat different story. In an article on “Teaching Literacy in Jamaica,” published in 2014, Ines Boumazia reported that, “about 70% of workers that have basic skills in reading, writing and numeracy are unable to use these skills in an effective and competitive way in a context of global economy. In a nutshell, the low level of literacy skills of Jamaican workers is a big barrier to their productivity and the development of the country.”

Nothing much has changed since 2014. In fact, the Gleaner editorial, “Patois and the liberation of English,” published on May 31, noted that the Orlando Patterson Commission on education reform failed to fully address a crucial weakness in the system: “One of the underexplored issues, however, is our clinging to the assumption that Jamaica is a naturally English-speaking country, rather than a bilingual one, in which most people have some grasp of English, but that English is not the mother tongue of the majority. It is not the first language of their homes or communities. Yet, we approach teaching English as if it were.”

That pharmacist who was conducting business in her mother tongue is from a generation that was taught English systematically. She learned the language well and is perfectly bilingual. Her facility in the Jamaican language should not be devalued as an impediment to productivity. The language of the heart is the key to unlock creativity in all fields. And that’s an important lesson to be learned at the pharmacy and in so many other domains. Despite the prime minister’s grand rhetoric, I imagine that even he uses the Jamaican language on the job. If this is indeed so, Andrew Holness must concede that the language of the Jamaican labour force cannot be exclusively English. That’s pure common sense. And social justice!

– Carolyn Cooper, PhD, is a teacher of English language and literature and a specialist on culture and development. Email feedback to [email protected] and [email protected]