KINGSTON, Jamaica – During Sunday church services and private celebrations in Jamaica, Christmas week prayers are being flavored with the first patois version of a familiar biblical account of Jesus' birth.
Based on the conviction that Scripture is best understood in a person's spoken tongue, the Caribbean island's bible society has started a new holiday tradition with audio and written versions of the Gospel of Luke in patois, or Creole — Jamaica's unofficial language.
Proponents of the patois versions of Luke argue that since many Jamaicans have difficulty understanding standard English, it is wrong to have the holy book of this overwhelmingly Christian nation only in a "foreign" tongue. A patois translation of the entire New Testament is expected in August 2012, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Jamaica's independence.
"The Scriptures have the greatest impact when you hear it in your mother tongue. So this translation to Creole is affirming the Jamaican speaker's language, and it is very, very powerful," said the Rev. Courtney Stewart, general secretary of the Bible Society of the West Indies.
Last week, a local radio station broadcast the patois renditions of Luke every morning, and its Nativity story translation is popping up at Christmas parties. Members of a church in Spanish Town, just west of Kingston, have even started to memorize it.
Most of the words in Jamaican patois, like other English Caribbean patois, are English words filtered through a distinct phonetic system with fewer vowels and different consonant sounds. Patois is written phonetically to approximate these differences. Thus, in patois, the English "girl" becomes "gyal."
In the depiction of the Angel Gabriel's visit to the Virgin Mary which foretold the birth of Jesus, the New King James Bible's version of Luke reads, "And having come in, the angel said to her, 'Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women.'"
In the patois version, it becomes, "Di ienjel go tu Mieri an se tu ar se, 'Mieri, mi av nyuuz we a go mek yu wel api. Gad riili riili bles yu an im a waak wid yu aal di taim.'"
Lloyd Millen, pastor of the Cumberland Community Church in Portmore, said his congregants have been "animated and so excited" when they hear him preach from the Gospel of Luke in their spoken language.
"People feel liberated to hear the Bible this way. They say they are able to visualize it better," Millen said.
Nearly all Jamaicans, regardless of class, speak patois — a mixture of English and West African tongues spoken by slaves who were brought to this Caribbean island by European colonizers. It rarely exists in written form.
Some Anglophiles on the island call patois "lazy English" and dismiss it as a vernacular.
On a page of the Jamaica Gleaner's Web site, a critic named Jo Bent said, "Patois is not an official language, it has no dictionary, are we to further confuse our youths when most have not mastered English yet?"
The bible society has launched a public education campaign to win over skeptics in Jamaica.
"Many people are skeptical about the bible translation work until they actually hear it. Then they cease being resistant," said Hubert Devonish, a linguistics professor at the University of the West Indies.