The development of Jamaican Creole English and its popularity and recognition

Term Paper, 2013

12 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Content

2. Introduction

3. A short introduction to the linguistic history of Jamaica

4. Standard Jamaican English

5. Jamaican Creole English (JC)
5.1 The role of Jamaican Creole English
5.2 Sociolinguistic features of Jamaican Creole English

6. Jamaican Creole English and its recognition in the world

7. Conclusion

8. Books of References and other Sources
8.1 Books
8.2 Websites

2. Introduction

The latest American Volkswagen advertisement depicts a white middle class man speaking to his colleagues with a Jamaican Creole English accent to cheer them up. He is supposed to display a satisfied and happy Volkswagen driver (cf. v=9H0xPWAtaa8 (27.02.2013)). The clip was released as a pregame Super Bowl advertisement in January 2013 and was received controversially. Whereas many Jamaicans saw the ad as an victory for the recognition of their creole language, others considered the clip as cultural offensive and racist (McFadden 2013: 1). However, the association western countries have towards Jamaican Creole English is a positive one - it is understood as a joyful and upbeat language. The positive image of the language is mostly created by popular Reggae and Dancehall artists like Bob Marley or Shabba Ranks, who helped Jamaican Creole English to gain recognition in the world. Even in the Volkswagen ad we can find a reference to the reggae idol. The white worker is paraphrasing lyrics from Bob Marely’s song “Three Little Birds” when standing in the elevator and saying “No worries, mon. Everything will be all right.” (McFadden 2013:1). Jamaican Creole English changed its image from “broken English” to a popular Creole language which became the tool of communicating music and Jamaican culture.

In this paper I want to provide a short introduction to the linguistic history of Jamaica. Moreover I will talk about the Standard Jamaican English, which is the official language of Jamaica. In this paper I will focus on Jamaican Creole English, therefore I will explain the social status and provide a sociolinguistic analysis of the creole. In the last point I will discuss the topic introduced at the top of this paper again - the popularity of the Jamaican Creole English and the recognition of the language in the world. In this paper I don't want to give a full linguistic analysis of Jamaicas languages, but I want to give an insight to the linguistic diversity of Jamaica. In my research I want to find out, if Jamaican Creole English is only “broken English” or if the impact of music and popular culture changed it into the standard language of Jamaica.

3. A short introduction to the linguistic history of Jamaica

Discovered by Columbus in 1494 Jamaica is now the biggest English-speaking country in the Caribbean. It was occupied by the Spaniards in 1509 and the importing of West African Negro slaves started with the arrival of the Spanish settlers. Therefore Spanish became the first European language spoken in Jamaica. Spanish-based pidgin-languages developed from the first language contacts with the indigenous population (Arawaks). According to Thomason 2001:159 the term pidgin language describes a language, which arises in a new contact situation involving different linguistic groups, which don’t have the same language but need to communicate for limited purposes (eg. trade). In 1655 England captured the island and continued the import of West African slaves. By 1690 82% of the population in Jamaica were African slaves (Cassidy 1971:205). The influence of African languages on the developing languages was tremendous (Viereck, 2002:19). English-based pidgins developed together with the influence of Modern English and the African tribal languages. In the 18th century Jamaican Creole English finally developed from the existing pidgin languages. In the 19th century the slave trade stopped and brought an end to the African language influences. Eventually pidgin speakers started to decrease and Jamaica became creolised. The word creole originated from the combination of two Spanish words - criar (to found, to settle, to create) and colono (a settler, a founder) into the word criollo: a committed settler or a person who is native, but not ancestrally indigenous to a certain place (cf. Brathwaite, 1971:xiv). A creole language is therefore a native language of a speech community, which also developed from a linguistic contact situation, but draws its lexicon from a lexifier1 language. The grammar of a creole language is more complex than the grammar of a pidgin language. In the case of Jamaican Creole English the lexifier language is English (Thomason 2001:159).

Jamaica became independent in 1962, until this time the British colony had English language influences. Nowadays we have two major languages in Jamaica: the Standard Jamaican English, which is the official language of the country and the Jamaican Creole English, often referred to as Jamaican Patwois. Both languages still influence each other as they coexist on the island and are in contact everyday.

4. Standard Jamaican English

Standard Jamaican English is the official language for public life and public communication. In Jamaica it is considered as the language for education, law, media, administration and government. Standard Jamaican English is also used in religious institutions and for written texts (Sand 1999:70). Standard Jamaican English is an independent standard variety, although it has different influences of British English, West African languages and Jamaican Creole English. According to Yule 1996:227 a standard variety is the language of education and the media of a country. A standard variety is used for written communication and it has a standardized lexicon, spelling and grammar. However, American English influences can be also found in Standard Jamaican English. Due to tourism and the close geographical situation American English influences can be found in nowadays Standard Jamaican English. Whereas Jamaican Creole English was always considered as the language of the slaves, Jamaican Standard English has a much higher prestige and it is higher valued by the Jamaican society. The language policy in Jamaica recognizes the existence of Jamaican Creole English, but still stresses the role of the standard variety for formal situations, business and international communication.

Derived from British English, Standard Jamaican English has undergone a long development with constant influences of other different languages. Like British English, Jamaican Standard English is a non-rhotic language 2 and according to Lawton (1984:255) there is no significant difference in comparison to Received Pronunciation 3 . Moreover both languages have the same realization of vowels and consonants (Lawton 1984:255). Despite that, the prosody of both languages differ. Whereas British English has a stressed time rhythm 4 , Jamaican Standard English has a syllable timed rhythm 5 . In Standard Jamaican English we can also find differences in lexicon compared to British English. Especially European languages have influenced the standard variety of Jamaica. Viereck (2002:195) points out, that one can find many loan words 6 from French, Portuguese and Spanish in the Jamaican Standard English.

Although there are many similarities to British English, Jamaican Standard English has developed to an independent variety characterized by different influences from British English, European and West African languages. As the standard variety of Jamaica it has higher value than Jamaican Creole English. In my next point I will focus on the creole language of Jamaica.

5. Jamaican Creole English (JC)

Jamaican Creole English (JC) is not the official language of Jamaica and rather used colloquially in private or informal situations. However, Jamaican Creole English (JC) is also referred to as Patois or Patwa, which underlines that Jamaicans do not perceive their language as a creole.

5.1 The role of Jamaican Creole English

Due to the low prestige of Jamaican Creole English, it is still not taught in school or recognized as an official standard variety in Jamaica. Viereck (2002:189) claims, that British settlers considered JC as some kind of broken English used by black slaves. This might be the reason, why JC is still understood as a low prestige and colloquial used language.

However, linguists from the West Indies and politicians have contributed to the acceptance of JC. In 1972 the prime minister Michael Manley used Jamaican Creole English for his own election campaign. JC turned into a symbol of being close to the nation and political success (Sand 1999:73). Besides that media became very open to the Jamaican Creole English. The advertisement of Volkswagen mentioned at the top of this paper is just a recent example. JC is used in commercials, interviews with DJ's and shows on TV. The prestige of JC is growing while it is used as a representative of the national identity. JC can be found in music, literature and other arts and even in religious movements. A famous example and an influential factor of JC is the Rastafari 7 movement which was founded by Marcus Garvey 8 in 1920. The movement supports the black self-confidence and is a rejection of white administrations and values. Members of the movement developed their own variety of JC, the Rasta-talk, which has a different lexicon compared to Jamaican Creole English. Being a black movement words like “overstand” are created, to express the resistance against the white oppression (the under in understand would show the low status and the oppression of the slaves). Other common known vocabulary derived from Rasta-talk is Rasta-Man, dreadlocks or Jah 9 . Although Rasta-Talk differs to a certain degree from JC, it supports the reputation of the creole language. JC is now a symbol for the Jamaican identity. It is know and recognized in the world through Reggae music and the religious movement Rastafari. According to Lawton JC has a “ritualistic function as well as a larger social role” (1984:269). However, Jamaican Standard English is the language, which is officially accepted and taught in school. This lack of prestige might be the main reason, why JC is still not standardized in the Jamaican society.

5.2 Sociolinguistic features of Jamaican Creole English

Jamaican Creole English is a English-based Creole and due to its historical development close to the English language. However, according to Viereck (2002:155) similarities between JC and Standard English can only be found regarding the lexicon. Concerning phonology, syntax and morphology both languages show substantial differences. JC has no official orthographic standard like many other pidgin and creole languages (Hinrichs 2006:1). JC is thought of an oral language since a considerable percentage of the Jamaican population using the creole language is illiterate (Lawton 1984:268). Due to the many substantial differences between JC and Standard English Viereck (2002:155) concludes, that JC should be considered as an independent language. However the creole language is not standardized nor officially accepted.

As already mentioned, British English and Jamaican Standard English have the same consonants. However in Jamaican Creole English there are some differences (Lawton 1984:266). One phonological feature is the lack of the realization of the [s] before velars 10 and voiceless plosives 11 . The creole language is lacking some consonants, Lawton is giving the example of the <th> realized as [θ] or [ð] in Standard Jamaican English and realized as [t] or [d] in Jamaican Creole English. Diphthongs like [eɪ] are replaced by [ɪe] in JC. [ei] changes to [ie] and [ə] replaces [a] in some situations (Lawton 1984:266). The reason for this change is related to some kind of code shifting in the phonology of Jamaican Standard English and Jamaican Creole English. Lawton states, that metathesis 12 and assimilation 13 are very common in Jamaican Creole English.


1 A lexifier language is the language from which the majority of the lexicon of a creole derived (Siegel 2002:335).

2 In a non-rhotic dialect, the /r/ is not dominant or even pronounced before a consonant or at the end of a word. (Davis 1998:105)

3 Received Pronounciation (RP) describes one particular dialect of British English, which is understood throughout the whole nation and has no attributes to a certain region. (Davis 1998: 41)

4 A stressed time rhythm is determined by the number of stressed syllables within a sentence which occur in regular intervals. (Viereck 2002:195)

5 A syllable timed rhythm is determined by the fact, that each syllable within a sentence is equally stressed. The rhythm of the sentence is influenced by the number of syllables. (Viereck 2002:195)

6 According to Appel and Musyken (1987:165) loan words are words from foreign languages which are borrowed and added to the lexicon of the own native language. Loan words usually derive from a stronger, majority language into a weaker, minority language. Using loan words is understood as a natural phenomenon of language evolution.

7 Rastafari is a religious and political movement, which begun in Jamaica and is now adopted worldwide. Rastafari combines Mysticism, Christianity and pan-Africal political consciousness. (Britannica Online Encyclopedia 2013)

8 Marcus Moziah Garvey (1887-1940) was a black leader of Pan-African black movements. He was a publisher and journalist and considered as religious prophet for the Rastafari movement. (Britannica Online Encyclopedia 2013)

9 Jah is the Rastafari term for God/Lord. (Britannica Online Encyclopedia 2013)

10 Velars are sounds, which are articulated at the soft palate in the back of a mouth. (Davis: 2002:30)

11 [p], [t] and [k] are voiceless plosives; they can also be called stops. (Davis 2002:18)

12 The term Metathesis describes the exchange of letters within a word. (Davis 2002:49)

13 Assimilation is the process of two sounds influencing each other due to the fact, that they occur close to each other. (Davis 2002:49)

Excerpt out of 12 pages


The development of Jamaican Creole English and its popularity and recognition
University of Potsdam  (Institut fuer Anglistik)
Languages in Contact
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ISBN (Book)
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patwois, jamaica, linguistics, english, creole, popularity
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Friederike Börner (Author), 2013, The development of Jamaican Creole English and its popularity and recognition, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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