Jamaican linguist on dialogue in Bob Marley biopic

The film ‘chose to embrace patois (also known as patwa), a Jamaican language which mixes English, Irish, Spanish, Hindi and Chinese

Photo: Kingsley Ben-Adir, who plays Bob Marley in One Love, says getting to grips with Jamaican patois was like ‘learning to play a part in French’. Photograph: Chiabella James/AP

16 February 2024 Clipper Media

‘We will not accept fake patois’: Jamaican linguist on dialogue in Bob Marley biopic

16 February 2024 |Lanre Bakare | The Guardian

When the Jamaican linguist Dr Joseph Farquharson agreed to consult on the Bob Marley biopic One Love, there was one major motivating factor: wanting to avoid another Cool Runnings.

The 1993 comedy about the real-life Jamaican Olympic bobsled team is a well-loved classic in many parts of the English-speaking world but has also become a cautionary tale about what happens when Hollywood attempts to “globalise” the Jamaican accent and distinct language.

For Farquharson, who worked as an adviser for the One Love dialogue coach, Brett Tyne – who in turn advised Kingsley Ben-Adir, who plays Marley – the dialogue in the film needed to be authentic, era-appropriate and not slip into anything other than Jamaican patois.

“We stated up front if this was going to be another Cool Runnings, we weren’t going to do it,” said Farquharson, a senior lecturer in linguistics at the Jamaican language unit in the University of the West Indies.

The Cool Runnings director, Jon Turteltaub, said he was under huge pressure from Jeffrey Katzenberg, then chair of Walt Disney Studios, because the American could not understand the accents of Leon Robinson, Doug E Doug, Malik Yoba and Rawle Lewis. “I began to worry he’d fire me if I couldn’t get them to speak the way Sebastian the crab did in The Little Mermaid,” he told the Guardian in 2020.

Farquharson said on One Love, Paramount – the studio behind it – chose to embrace patois, which mixes English, Irish, Spanish, Hindi and Chinese and is also known as patwa. “I wasn’t sure how deep they wanted to go,” said Farquharson. “This was still Hollywood and they are making a movie for the rest of the world.”

That decision made life demanding for one of the film’s stars. Ben-Adir recently told the Observer that he might as well have been “learning to play a part in French” because Jamaican patois was deceptive. “So much of the English language is in it, you think you know it,” he said. “But it’s more confusing and complicated than that.”

Farquharson said Ben-Adir used the Cassidy-JLU writing system – a phonetic method of replicating patois in written form – to get to grips with the language. “It made it so much easier for him to be clued in,” he said.

Getting patois right is increasingly important for Jamaicans, who are embracing the language, which some have argued should be replaced entirely with standardised English. “Attitudes are changing and they have shifted significantly over the last 20 to 30 years,” said Farquharson.

He highlighted a survey from 2005 that showed 70% of Jamaicans were in favour of having bilingual schools that teach in standard English and patois, a dramatic switch from the 1950s when the language was denigrated.

He said he believed there was a direct link between those shifting attitudes and the approach Hollywood took with One Love. “Because Jamaicans are more positive about their language they want to see their language represented well,” he said.

Patois has also become politicised. The main opposition party in Jamaica, the People’s National party, has pledged that patois would be given formal recognition as Jamaican language if they come to power.

Speaking at the party’s annual conference last year the party president, Mark Golding, said Jamaica needed to acknowledge that there was a “language problem” in the country, rooted in its past as a former colony. “Part of the legacy of our colonial past is the belief that the Jamaican language, created by our own people, is somehow unworthy and only to be spoken by those who can’t do better,” he said.

Farquharson believes the language’s importance is much more significant, and makes Jamaica distinct. “We lose our flavour without it, we become like everyone else. Everyone [in the Caribbean] has sand and sun, so what are you offering?” he said. “We have got to the point where we say: ‘Well, this is us.’ It’s the same as subtitling a movie in another language – give us the same sort of privileges, we will not accept fake patois.”

That attention to detail means that One Love will not be doomed to sit alongside Cool Runnings and How Stella Got Her Groove Back in the patois fail club, but has managed to reach the same level of linguistic authenticity as The Harder They Come, Perry Henzell’s 1972 gangster classic, renowned for its use of the language.

“I would say One Love is even more authentic than The Harder They Come,” said Farquharson, who remembers scenes in the Jimmy Cliff film where characters use more English than you might expect from underworld figures. “But here [in One Love], especially when you hear the band members speaking, you are getting authentic, authentic Jamaican – they went to town.”


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