There is a controversy brewing in Jamaica. The Bible Society is translating the Bible for the first time into Patois, the Creole language of Jamaica. This is welcomed by some and opposed by others. Those who oppose it want priority put on English. Some consider Patois to be substandard and even backward. While they see English as the language of development and access to the international world.

Congolese study the Bible in their languages in Ariwara

Congolese study the Bible in their languages in Ariwara

The Patois controversy is recycled. At various times and places, people have opposed the translation of the Bible into the common language for exactly the same reasons. Those arguing for English in Jamaica may not know, for example, that in the 14th and 15th centuries, educated people made the same arguments but in favor of Latin and against English. At the time, it was clear that Latin was the language of world affairs, that it had a fine literary tradition, and that anyone wanting to get ahead would not do so by learning English.

Paul Hema reads the Bible in front of his humble dwelling in Burkina Faso

Paul Hema reads the Bambara Bible in front of his humble dwelling in Burkina Faso

Nevertheless, reformers like John Wycliffe and William Tyndale translated the Bible into English and even wrote theological books and articles in English for the first time. The famous Swiss reformer, John Calvin, first wrote his well-known theological work, “Institutes of the Christian Religion”, in Latin. When he revised it, he wrote in French, his mother tongue, shocking much of the world. But today, even among those who know his “Institutes”, few remember than he first wrote them in Latin.

In a BBC News article on the controversy, their religious affairs correspondent, Robert Pigott, reports that when the Gospel of Luke in Patois was read for the first time in one of the churches it had an electrifying effect. One woman, referring to the passage where Jesus is tempted by the Devil, said:

“It’s almost as if you are seeing it. In the blink of an eye, you get the whole notion. It’s as though you are watching a movie…”

Traditional leader reading Gospel of Mark in Kaakye

Traditional leader reading Gospel of Mark in the Kaakye language of Ghana

Nevertheless, more conservative Christians say that translating the Bible into Patois dilutes the Word of God. That too is an argument recycled from controversies in other times and places. Historically, those who make that argument have always been wrong, because when the Bible was eventually translated into the “substandard” language it proved to be effective for evangelism and discipleship.

As someone involved in Bible translation into minority languages, you will guess on which side of this controversy I am aligned. I have no doubt that, in the end, some of the lowly men and women who read the Bible in their insignificant languages will be found to be very wise, dignified and worthy by the final Judge of such matters.

I suspect that those promoting English think that they have a high view of the Bible. But I think that it needs to be even higher. It is not the Bible, but the language that is in danger. You see, a humble language cannot drag the Bible down, but the Bible does elevate a humble language.

But God chose the foolish things of this world to put the wise to shame. He chose the weak things of this world to put the powerful to shame. (I Cor :27 CEV)

Congolese study the Bible in their languages in Ariwara

Congolese study the Bible in their languages in Ariwara

For a story of the impact the Patois translation is already having, see

You might be interested in checking out the Hawaii Pidgin Bible website.

5 thoughts on “Patois

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