Jamaica has a long history, one that has added to the country’s ethnic, cultural and linguistic diversity. Prior to its discovery and resultant colonization, its indigenous people, known as the Taino, called the island Xayamaca, which in their Arawakan language means “Land of Wood and Water” or “Land of Springs.”[ii] As a Spanish possession the island was known as Santiago, but when it came under English rule in 1655 it was renamed Jamaica. Jamaica would continue to serve as a British possession for 307 years until it finally reached full independence from the United Kingdom on 6 August 1962. Today the country is a Commonwealth realm with Queen Elizabeth II serving as Queen of Jamaica and head of state. Her appointed representative in the country is the Governor-General of Jamaica, currently Sir Patrick Allen. The head of the Jamaican government is the Prime Minister—currently Portia Simpson-Miller—who was appointed by the bicameral Jamaican Parliament, which consists of both a Senate and House of Representatives.[iii]
Languages Spoken In JamaicaThe many languages that can be heard throughout both rural and urban Jamaica are a reflection of the country’s vast ethnic and cultural diversity. English is the official language of Jamaica and is used for all official purposes, including being the language of government, education and media. With a population of nearly 2.9 million, Jamaica is the third most populous Anglophone (English-speaking) country in the Americas, trailing only the United States and Canada.[iv]
Jamaican Creole (Patois)While English is the official language of Jamaica, the large majority of the Jamaica people speak a form of English Creole, known by linguists as Jamaican Creole or Patois. Jamaican Creole can best be described as an English-lexified Creole language; a mixture of English and a variety of West African languages.[v] Patois is known for its pleasing tone, with a musical lilt and a rhythm to the spoken word. This regional form of Creole is very present throughout the large island country and can often be heard in the popular form of Jamaican music known as Reggae.
Most permanent residents of Jamaica have a firm linguistic handle on Jamaican Creole, but because the language is primarily a spoken one, most people communicate in writing using the UK style of English. It’s important to note that Jamaican Creole is not the same as the English spoken on the island, which is often referred to as Rastafarian English. However, even those that do choose to speak English in both formal and informal situations (typically the wealthier and more educated citizens), tend to demonstrate a pleasant-sounding accent that is unique to the island of Jamaica.[vi] Moreover, the Jamaican Diaspora—Jamaicans who have emigrated to other parts of the world, mainly to Europe and the United States—have brought with them their unique Creole language and Rastafarian accent.
Jamaican Creole was initially developed in the 1600s when the island was under British colonial control. Linguists say the language originated during the slave trade, when individuals were brought to Jamaica from West and Central Africa to work. Being newly exposed to the English language, the slaves put their own native twist on the vernacular and dialectal forms of the language spoken by their English and Scottish masters, and thus a new language of communication was born.[vii]
To fully understand the development of the Jamaican language, we much dig deeper to see it was born out of a series of historical contacts and collisions, including colonialism, war, trade, slavery and the plantation system. What began as an emergency tool to allow rural masters and slaves to communicate gradually spread through the hills and gullies to the small settlements and large growing cities. In the end, the language was so prized and perfected that it came to be celebrated in the vibrant music and folk tales of this extremely proud nation. [viii]
The Jamaican language has many names, although most Jamaicans residents call it “Patois,” a word originally derived from the French. When translated, “Patois” means a common tongue formed for communication between groups who previously did not share a language, such as masters and slaves.[ix] Although the name “Patois” strikes pride in most Jamaicans, historically it has had a negative linguistic connotation of inferiority. A Patois is generally considered a degenerate version of the mother language or pure Language, in this case the Queen’s English. To distinguish the Jamaican Patios from this historical connotation, most researchers refuse to consider it as a Patois whatsoever, but rather a Creole. A Creole language is one that is developed over the time through the combination of other languages, which eventually becomes more than, or independent from, the sum of its parts.[x]
During the days of the slave trade and slavery, English and African languages combined words, grammar and intonations to form the language now known as Jamaican Creole. There were also many contributions to Jamaican Creole that derived from the languages of the Native Amerindian population and the Spanish, who inhabited the island prior to its colonization by the United Kingdom. Because English has for centuries been the language of power and prestige in Jamaica, most of the words in Jamaican Patois have English roots. However, many of the intonations, grammatical structures and some of the words have a strong African presence.[xi]
Today Jamaican Creole is spoken throughout the country, as well as in neighborhoods of the Jamaican Diaspora in places such as New York, Miami, London and Toronto. It is important to state again, however, that English remains the "official" language of Jamaica, despite its minority status in terms of the number of speakers. English is the language of education, commerce, and the institutional world, but in informal situations the large majority of Jamaicans rely on their Patois for communication. [xii]
Jamaican Patois features a linguistic continuum (or Creole continuum), meaning that the variety of the language closest to the lexifier language (known as the arcolet or dominant language, in this case English) is systematically indistinguishable from intermediate varieties of the language (collectively known as the mescolet) nor even from the most divergent rural varieties (collectively referred to as the basilect).[xiii] In other words, even those who speak the form of Jamaican Creole that is closest to the English language can be heard and understood by those who speak the form of Creole that most departs from the English language, and vice versa
When it comes to pronunciation and vocabulary, Jamaican Creole can be significantly different from English, even though Creole relies heavily on the use of English words and derivatives. According to language professionals, Jamaican Creole or Patois exhibits resemblances to the pidgin and Creole languages of West Africa, largely due to their shared descent from the combining of African substrate languages with the languages of Europe.[xiv]
As we mentioned briefly above, Jamaican Creole is mainly a spoken language, with UK-style English used for writing by most of the Jamaican people. However, Jamaican Creole has been gaining ground as a literary language for almost a hundred years. One such example of written Jamaican Patois is the book of Jamaican poems called Songs of Jamaica, written and published by Claude McKay in 1912.[xv] Additionally, many Jamaicans have the tendency to switch back and forth between English and Jamaican Creole when writing to achieve a type of stylistic contrast. This type of writing is very common on the Internet.
Other Languages Spoken in JamaicaAlthough the overwhelming majority of Jamaicans speak Jamaican Creole, English, or a combination of the two languages, in certain regions of the country is not uncommon to hear other languages as well.
There still remains in Jamaica a small minority of native Amerindian residents, namely the Taino people, who are thought to be the first people to inhabit the island now known as Jamaica. Some of these people continue to speak the first language of their ancestors—a language known as Arawak. The Tainos, assumed to be natives of the northern coast of South America, are thought to have arrived in Jamaica in around 600 A.D.[xvi]
The Arawakan-speaking Tainos were a peaceful people of the Stone Age. Upon settling in Jamaica they continued to live there for 900 years, until their existence was threatened when the Spanish invaded the region in 1494. The search of Cathay, the land of gold in Jamaica’s east, motivated the Spanish Conquest.[xvii]
Although the Arawak language is rarely heard anymore on the island of Jamaica, the language has contributed a number of words to the English language. Some of the Arawak words which were later adopted and added to the English language include hammock, hurricane, tobacco, barbeque, cassava, guava and canoe.[xviii] Although the Arawak language of the Taino people is no longer en-vogue on the island of Jamaica, it has unquestionably contributed greatly to the enrichment of the English, and later Jamaican Creole language.
Since the country’s independence in 1962, scores of immigrants from countries throughout the world have made their way to Jamaica, bringing with them their customs, traditions and, yes, their language. There are thousands of foreign nationals now living in Jamaica, most hailing from countries in Europe, North America and Asia. Most of these people tend to speak their native language at home as well as informally within their own communities, and a good portion are bilingual, with English as their second language.[xix]
According to the last census, the most prevalent foreign language minorities in Jamaica (in terms of the number of speakers) are Chinese (31,000), Spanish (8,000), Portuguese (5,000) and Arabic (2,000).[xx]
[ii] “Jamaica: Maps, History, Geography, Government, Culture and Facts.” infoplease.com. Retrieved 8 October 2013.
[vi] “Jamaica: Language, Culture, Customs and Etiquette.” kwintessential.com. Retrieved 8 October 2013.
[vii] Madden, Ruby. “The Historical and Cultural Aspects of Jamaican Patois.” debate.uvm.edu. Retrieved 8 October 2013.
[viii] Herbold, Stacey. “Jamaican Patois and the Power of Language in Reggae Music.” debate.uvm.edu. Retrieved 8 October 2013.
[xi] Smith, Ben-Trawick “A Brief Look at Jamaican Creole.” dialectblog.com. Retrieved 8 October 2013.
[xvi] Jiang, Wenbo. “The History of Jamaica: Jamaican Tainos.” wjiang2.blogspot.com. Retrieved 8 October 2013.
[xvii] Jiang, Wenbo. “The History of Jamaica: Jamaican Tainos.” wjiang2.blogspot.com. Retrieved 8 October 2013.
[xix] “Jamaican Migration History.” jamaicaobserver.com. Retrieved 8 October 2013.