Jamaican Creole in Reggae Music. An Overview over Linguistic Phenomena

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2020

18 Pages, Grade: 1,0


List of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Historical Background of Jamaican Creole

3. The role of Standard English and Jamaican Creole

4. Linguistic features of Jamaican Creole
4.1 Phonological
4.2 Grammatical
4.3 Lexical

5. Jamaican Creole in Reggae Music
5.1 Bob Marley’s “Them Belly Full”
5.2 Peter Tosh’s “Apartheid”
5.3 Buju Banton’s “Murderer”

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography

Editorial note: The appendix ist not part of his publication due to copyright issues.

1 Introduction

Since the English language continues to spread all over the world day by day, it is also important to consider the fact that there are languages that arose from the English language through e.g. colonialism. It should be noted that they do not get the same attention as Standard English, e.g. RP in England or Standard American English in the United States that are used for governmental affairs, and even might be endangered by the dominance of Standard English. As for Jamaican Creole, it is used by Jamaican speakers every day in many different situations but is still not recognized as a “real” language for certain people (cf. Christie, 2003: 2).

On the linguistic level, we will later comprehend that Jamaican Creole is not only a “bad variety” of Standard English but also has a linguistic system and is as much structured in terms of phonology, grammar and even lexis as Standard English.

Therefore, I chose this topic to prove that Jamaican Creole is not only a “bad variety” of Standard English as it will be analyzed later on but also to compare linguistic aspects of Jamaican Creole with its use in different songs.

Through the spread of Jamaican music, especially the Reggae genre, Jamaican Creole has gained more recognition and attention all over the world. Accordingly, the central question of this term paper will be “What linguistic features of Jamaican Creole are realized in Reggae music?”. The main objective of this work is to give an overview of linguistic phenomena that characterize Reggae songs in Jamaica. To this end, an analysis of the phonological, grammatical and lexical peculiarities that occur in Reggae music in Jamaica will be performed.

First of all, I will commence with the historical background of Jamaican Creole and explain how and why it has developed and what role Standard English and even different African languages have played concerning its formation over centuries.

Afterwards, the focus will be on the role of Standard English and Jamaican Creole in Jamaica. Basically, I will explain in what situations Standard English and Jamaican Creole are used, where they might be rather inappropriate and mistimed to use and mention the phenomenon of code-switching. Next up, different linguistic features of Jamaican Creole will be analysed - phonological, grammatical and lexical ones. After having exemplified those features, we will take a closer look at different songs of the Reggae genre by three of the most famous Reggae artists Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Buju Banton where different linguistic features of Jamaican Creole can be found in their songs in great quantities.

Finally, the results of the typical linguistic features that have been mentioned and the occurrences of certain linguistic features in the analysed songs will be compared in order to have an overview over what features are realized in Reggae songs.

2 Historical background of Jamaican Creole

First of all, it is important to know how Jamaican Creole or “Jamaican Patois”, how locals call it, emerged and developed in Jamaica throughout history.

Before illustrating the historical background of Jamaican Creole, the difference between the two terms “Pidgin” and “Creole” must be clarified. Pidgin languages “[usually] do not have native speakers, and are therefore primarily used as a means of communication among people who do not share a common language” (Arends, Muysken & Smith, 1995: 2). To put it another way, pidgin languages serve as a tool of mutual comprehension between people who do not speak the language of one another. Furthermore, they are characterized by a simplified and reduced structure concerning the grammar and lexis (cf. Hymes, 1971: 4). It has to be noted that there are different types of pidgins, namely the jargons (or unstable pidgins), the stable pidgins and the expanded pidgins (cf. Arends, Muysken & Smith, 1995: 25f.). Jargons are linguistically seen very instable in terms of grammar and lexis; stable pidgins are more developed and contain a number of linguistic norms while expanded pidgins are characterized by an increased and more complex linguistic system and functions (cf. ibid.). Although the definition of pidgin languages states that there are usually no native speakers, there are pidgin languages that begin to acquire native speakers, e.g. Tok Pisin (Papua New Guinea), Nigerian Pidgin English, and Sango (Central African Republic) (cf. ibid.: 3).

In contrast to pidgin languages, creole languages do have native speakers and “they came into existence at some point in time” (Arends, Muysken & Smith, 1995: 3) unlike ordinary languages like English and French. Moreover, creole languages do have quite a lot more linguistic functions and norms than pidgin languages, as pidgin languages are only “contact languages”, for e.g. trading, and creole languages are nativized by their speakers (cf. Hymes, 1971: 16). More precise information about how Jamaican Creole has emerged will be provided in the following paragraph.

After Christopher Columbus had discovered Jamaica in 1494 and the natives living there had been killed by the Spaniards, the English conquered the island in 1655 to expand colonialism and slavery (cf. Christie, 2003: 1). It should be mentioned that the Spaniards had already brought African slaves to the island and in order to increase their richness, the English continued to import even more slaves from different parts of Africa to mainly work on sugar plantations (cf. ibid.). Since slaves from different African countries, and therefore speakers of different languages, had been brought to Jamaica, a multicultural community arose (cf. ibid.). Basically, the colonizers and colonized required a way to communicate with one another which was impossible at the beginning, as the colonizer’s mother language was English and the colonized spoke different languages of Africa (cf. ibid). In fact, Jamaican Creole has developed as “a result of linguistic violence” (Arends, Muysken & Smith, 1995: 4), that is to say, the English language system was being forced on the slaves without having been able to speak English at all. This raises the question of how exactly the colonizers were able to force their linguistic system on the colonized. Muysken and Smith explain the phenomenon of “foreigner talk and baby talk” as follows:

It is commonly known that people will simplify their speech when talking to foreigners. [...] and some authors, claim that this could have formed the basis for the formation of pidgins and ultimately creoles. [...] Accommodation to the non-native competence of the other results in slower speech, shorter and less complex sentences, the introduction of pauses between constituents, the use of general and semantically unspecific terms, and repetitions (Arends, Muysken & Smith, 1995: 95).

A striking example is the sentence “Don't you hear me?” that would be simplified to “You no hear?” when talking to a non-native speaker (cf. ibid.: 96). In general, it can be said that the first expression, “Don't you hear me?” carries too much information for a person who is not an English speaker. In comparison to that, “You no hear?” contains the exact right amount of information someone needs to understand what the native speaker wants to express: The sentence contains the basic components “subject”, “negation” and “verb” and thus all the information that is needed to understand its message. Basically, this theory is about the colonizers teaching the colonized their language, namely English, in a simplified way. However, there is a bit more to be said: Not only the colonizers tried forcing their linguistic system on the slaves but they themselves were also part of the formation of a whole different language by creating a mixture of the different languages of Africa each one spoke and English which was in the end incomprehensible for the colonizers (cf. Hymes, 1971: 19f.). Regarding the definitions of pidgin and creole languages, it has to be pointed out that Jamaican Creole emerged as a pidgin language first and then developed into a creole language because it became the mother tongue of Jamaicans after generations.

3 The role of Standard English and Jamaican Creole

In 1971, about one and a half million people in Jamaica spoke Jamaican Creole (cf. Hymes, 1971: 17). More recent studies say that the number of speakers has increased a lot; Jamaican Creole is used by more than two and a half million people in Jamaica (cf. Patrick, 2008: 609). The reason of why this number has increased this much is that the attitude towards Standard English and Jamaican Creole has changed.

Hymes explains the linguistic situation of Jamaica in 1971 as follows:

The creole is inseparably associated with poverty, ignorance, and lack of moral character. This association is, of course, a half truth for the poor, the uneducated, and the unambitious do speak the broader varieties of creole [...]. However it is the social prejudice against creole which is partially responsible for continued poverty, ignorance, and lack of ambition (Hymes, 1971: 26).

Furthermore, it should be borne in mind that the belief of Standard English being the more prestigious language and therefore should be primarily used by Jamaicans arose from colonial times where the language of the slaves was associated with a “lack of intelligence” (Christie, 2003: 2). Also, Standard English was taught in schools and served as the “language of instruction” to spread religious beliefs (cf. ibid.: 11). Nowadays, the attitudes to Jamaican Creole have changed in a positive way; Christie explains that Jamaican Creole is not anymore associated with the aforementioned characteristics, “as it is also used on occasion by members of all classes in moments of relaxation, as a vehicle for the expression of emotions [.], the description of personal experiences and the exchange of jokes [...]” (Christie, 2003: 3).

Moreover, it should also be pointed out that there is not only one single Jamaican creole but a so-called “post-Creole continuum” (Irvine, 2004, as cited in Washington, 201 2). This means that “two polar language varieties (i.e. English - the acrolect, and Creole - the basilect) occur along these continua and are considered by linguistic scholars to be separate linguistic systems connected by middle occurring varieties, the mesolect” (Winford, 1997, as cited in Washington, 2012). A possible reason of why there are several types of Jamaican Creole is that in colonial times not only one Jamaican Creole emerged but several types, as “the slaves must have been brought in such large numbers, so rapidly, and from so many places, that they could neither preserve a functioning African language nor learn English fully” (Hymes, 1971: 204).

The basilect is regarded the least and the acrolect the most prestigious. In between, there are different types of mesolects, from less to more prestigious and it depends on different regions and groups of speakers, what forms they use (cf. Washington 2012: 102) (cf. Arends, Muysken & Smith, 1995: 5). Besides, almost any Jamaican is able to understand the different types (cf. Hymes, 1971: 204). The following example clarifies what is meant by the continuum:

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Fig 1 Different ways of saying the same thing: one utterance realized in some lects of the Jamaican creole continuum (Hinrichs, 2006: 9)

The basilect is considered to be a “conservative, countrified, socially isolated form of speech, a true creole [...]” (Hymes, 1971: 204) and expresses a “social and economic gap [...] between the small-settler and village dweller on the one hand, and on the other end the urbanized, educated, professional or upper business type” (ibid.).

Nevertheless, the different types of mesolects are most common in Jamaica; the “purest” basilect and “purest” acrolect are hardly found today (cf. Hinrichs, 2006: 10).

Basically, Standard English, the acrolect, or rather the variety “Jamaican English” (JamE) (cf. ibid.) is the official language in Jamaica and is used in terms of “government, in the law courts, the schools, the mass media, in religious worship and in all other contexts where written language is required” (Christie, 2003: 2). However, Jamaican Creole, the basilect, has become more and more popular in formal domains; it is “no longer unusual in advertisements in the press and on radio and television” (ibid.) which also explains the frequent use of Jamaican Creole in music which will be analysed later on. Moreover, it is also spoken by well educated people and politicians nowadays (cf. ibid.). In view of the overlap between Standard English and Jamaican Creole, it is to say that code switching is a common phenomenon in Jamaica. Code switching is defined as “the use of more than one language in a single stretch of speech or writing [...]” (Christie, 2003: 3). Usually, code switching occurs in a sentence where one part is in the first language and the second part in the second language, and vice versa. The phenomenon of code switching can be found in the sentence “Wa mi a go tel mi wife, when I get home” (ibid.) which can be translated into “What am I going to tell my wife, when I get home?” The linguistic features of Jamaican Creole will be further analysed in the next chapter.

4 Linguistic features of Jamaican Creole

In advance, it should be stressed that the following examples might not appear everywhere in Jamaica nor are used by every Jamaican speaker. As explained before, the post-Creole continuum implies that phonological, grammatical and lexical features might differ in terms of regions, age, social classes, and so on. The following chapter deals with the most common linguistic features in Jamaica that are used by the majority of speakers.

4.1 Phonological

Regarding the phonology, it is important to know that the Jamaican continuum resembles British English more than American English and that the vowel system is a simplified version of British English as multiple mergers of the vowels exist (cf. Melchers & Shaw, 2003: 123f.).

There are fourteen vowels that exist in Standard English (cf. Eckert & Barry, 2005: 111). The Jamaican continuum contains fifteen vowels which are proposed as follows according to Schneider and will be used in this term paper for transcriptions:

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Fig 2 The main vowels (Schneider, 2008: 266)

The phoneme /»/ or the so-called “trap vowel” of Standard English is represented as the phoneme /a/ in Jamaica; the phoneme /d/, the “lot vowel” is represented as the phoneme /a/ or sometimes /d/ (Melchers & Shaw, 2003: 124).

Some words that contain different vowels in Standard English, e.g. “bath” “cloth”, “palm” and “thought” are expressed by the same phoneme in Jamaica, namely /aa/ (cf. ibid.). As already mentioned above, the representation of the same phoneme in words that are represented by different phonemes in Standard English or RP is called a merger.

In Jamaican Creole, the diphthong /ei/ usually becomes /ie/ in e.g. [ieti] for “eighty” (cf. Schneider, 2008: 286). Furthermore, the “force” (/o:/ in RP) and “cure” (/ua/ in RP) vowels are represented by the same phoneme in Jamaica /oor/ (cf. ibid.). It should also be emphasized that vowels preceded or followed by a nasal consonant are nasalized (cf. Schneider, 2008: 261). The following figure exemplifies this phenomenon:

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Fig 3 Nasal vowels (Schneider 2008: 261)

Between Jamaican English and Jamaican Creole there are two major differences in the vowel system regarding the long vowels; /ee/ becomes /ia/ in Jamaican Creole and /oo/ becomes /ua/ (cf. Schneider, 2008: 271). This implies that those vowels are diphthongized in Jamaica.

In comparison to the twenty-four consonants existing in Standard English, there are only twenty-one consonants in Jamaican Creole:

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Fig 4 The consonants (Schneider, 2008: 272)

It is striking that the dental fricatives /O/ and /Ö/ and the voiced postalveolar fricative l^l do not exist in the Jamaican Creole consonant system. Instead, the phoneme /9/ is replaced by the voiceless alveolar plosive /t/; the phoneme /ö/ by the voiced alveolar plosive /d/ and the phoneme is devoiced and therefore replaced by the phoneme /f/ (cf. Melchers & Shaw, 2003: 125). However, dental fricatives count “as a prestige marker, which is demonstrated by hypercorrections such as [foO] for foot” (ibid.). In Jamaican English, those consonants do exist; both varieties are used by speakers of Jamaican English (cf. Schneider, 2008: 285).

Another widespread phenomenon of Jamaican Creole is the omission (the so-called h-dropping) or addition of the h-sound (cf. ibid.). The omission of the h-sound occurs in e.g. [a:f] for half; the addition of the h-sound occurs in words like “honest” where the h-sound is normally not pronounced in Standard English. With regard to the addition of h-sounds, it can be argued that this is a form of hypercorrection, meaning that speakers of Jamaican Creole realize the phoneme /h/ in words that contain the grapheme <h> but in which it is silent and not pronounced in Standard English.

Moreover, the use of the glides [j] and [w] after plosives like [k] or [b] often occur in Jamaican Creole and partially in Jamaican English (cf. Schneider, 2008: 274). This can be found in e.g. [kjat] for “cat” or [bwai] for “boy” and is also called “palatalization” for the insertion of the phoneme /j/ and “labialization” for the insertion of the phoneme /w/ (cf. Melchers & Shaw, 2003: 125) (cf. Washington, 2012: 103).

Concerning the rhoticity, in other words the pronunciation of the post-vocalic /r/, it must be noted that Jamaica is semi-rhotic which means that the post-vocalic /r/ is only pronounced in certain contexts (cf. Rosenfelder, 2009: 62). The Jamaican continuum is non-rhotic at the end of unstressed syllables in e.g. “letter” because of the unstressed schwa-sound before the phoneme /r/ and partially rhotic in words like “near”, “force”, “square” and “cure” (cf. ibid.). Additionally, it is common that rhoticity occurs when the /r/ is followed by a consonant (cf. ibid.).


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Jamaican Creole in Reggae Music. An Overview over Linguistic Phenomena
University of Koblenz-Landau  (Anglistik)
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jamaican, creole, reggae, music, overview, linguistic, phenomena, pidgin
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Sarah Lenhardt (Author), 2020, Jamaican Creole in Reggae Music. An Overview over Linguistic Phenomena, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/946813


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