Is Jamaica Patois a Language ?

I am a Jamaican educator and linguist and a frequent user of website, which I find fascinating, necessary, and culturally uplifting. I am particularly interested in the use of patois (qua patwa) as an active and vibrant medium of communication by a number of Jamaicans; and even by other friends of Jamaica. From a linguist’s perspective the language referred to as “Patois/Patwa” is officially labeled as “Jamaican Creole”, or even better as simply “Jamaican”. This designation is understandable in the larger context in which languages are usually named — after the country in which the language initially evolved and developed. Thus, as examples, we have the following: England/English; Germany/German; Sweden/Swedish; France/French; Spain/Spanish; China/Chinese; Russia/Russian. Occasionally languages are named after an ethnocultural grouping or region, thus: Arabia/Arabic; Judisch=Jewish/Yiddish. Even when there appears to be no direct connection between a nation or country and the designation of its language we can trace some historic connection that can provide a logical explanation for the current name of the language. The United States (America) is a typical example. We do not normally refer to the language as “American” (although some people may do so), but simply as “English”. The rational explanation for this is that the original ‘American’ speakers and users of “English” were actually English men and women during the colonial and pre-independence era in the first half of the 18th century — and certainly before that — under King George III. Thus ‘American’ English bears the colonial legacy as an indelible imprint in the naming of the language.

Back to the case of Patois/Patwa/Jamaican Creole/Jamaican! From linguistic experience we know that creole languages worldwide developed out of earlier forms, described as a ‘Pidgin’ as a result of the contact (e.g., from trading, commerce, bartering, even slavery) betwen and among speakers of mutually incomprehensible languages: French and African languages; English and African languages; Dutch and African languages; Some European language and Chinese, Native American, or African languages, etc.

In the case of Jamaica (during an extended period of slavery and colonialism) the mutually incomprehensible languages were English (and Spanish prior to English) and a combination of several West African languages primarily from West Africa and pertaining to the Niger-Congo family of languages. Out of this fertile linguistic soup a common ‘primitive’ or pseudolanguage (‘pseudosprache’) emerged — spoken by our Jamaican ancestors from Africa who, themselves, possessed such native languages as Twi, Fante, Ibo, Yoruba — which, under harsh and severe penalty, they were forbidden to speak in the presence of their European masters. However, this ‘convenient’ pseudotalk by our African ancestors in Jamaica and the rest of the Caribbean, in time was developed by the children of our African ancestors into a full-fledged language with its autonomous grammar bearing strong African roots and stocked with the lexicon of English words and those from Spanish, French, Native American, and, of course, African sources.

This new language became known generically as ‘Creole’ to identify its genesis from multilinguistic sources (involving, as a requirement, three or more languages to contribute to the development of the new language. Today we have creole languages all over the world. Some better known ones are Jamaican, Haitian, Sranan Tongo, Garifuna (in the Caribbean) , Tok Psin (in the Malaysian Peninsula), Afrikaans (in South Africa), Yiddish (in Germany and around the world). Interestingly, many of these languages now enjoy official recognition and status; and encourage literacy development in these various languages. I believe that Jamaican is moving steadily in that direction.

The ultimate question as to whether these Creole languages are indeed “languages” or “dialects” is moot and in fact a distraction. Again, from a linguistic perspective, all “languages” are comprised of “dialects”, which are the distinct variations in form, utterance, meaning, and syntax of a particular language. What we sometimes describe as ‘standard’ English is itself a variant form of the family of dialects we refer to collectively as “English”. Some dialects of “English” are: ‘Bostonian’, ‘Southern’, ‘New England’, ‘Australian’, ‘Yorkshire’, ‘Cockney ‘, ‘Canadian’, etc. Some of these dialects of English will be arbitrarily assigned more ‘prestige’ than others; but this is a sociological choice rather than a linguistic choice. When, however, a dialect ‘shift’ is so great that the differences from the ‘uniform’ language family make communication difficult or perhaps even impossible, we recognize, at least psychologically, culturally, and socially that this ‘strange’, ‘crude’, ‘vulgar’ dialect has indeed become another language, yet bearing historic connection with the language that it — way in the past — had membership.

Again classical examples are Latin and Italian; Latin and Spanish; Latin and French; Latin and Portuguese; Germanic and English; Germanic and Dutch; Germanic and Swedish; Germanic and Germanic; Germanic and Norwegian/Danish, etc. The point to all of this is to recognize that Jamaican is distinct enough to be recognized as a language of African origins that has sufficiently evolved to become an autonomous language. What has not quite happened so far is to have a uniform orthographic representation of the language; and therefore to give it the respect it fully deserves. As linguists we note that all human languages started out in oral form (Sign Language is an exception); and many of these languages were later ascribed written phonetic representations in order to preserve some written consistency of the language, recognizing at the same time that (again largely because of dialect distinctions), in their oral expression, there would always be a degree of variation that demonstrated the vibrancy of the language in different linguistic communities. Literacy (and perhaps in relation to the development of movable type and the Printing Press) soon developed and became a widespread phenomenon among those languages that employed a uniform written form. These languages even gained prestige and a ‘standard’ associated with them. Unfortunately, those languages which are quite capable of being represented orthographically in a uniform way, but have not done so for a number of reasons (repression by the ‘prestige’ languages that they are in contact with; discouragement by ‘those in power’ to see these languages orthographically represented; social, cultural, historical, political, economic clashes, etc) are criticized, frowned on, scorned — in a similar way in which we regard the speakers of these languages as societal ‘outcasts’ or ‘rejects’.

Let’s examine briefly some structures in Jamaican and compare them with English:


Dem a fi mi
They’re mine

Kuyaman, awara?
Say, what’s up?
Unu a fi nuo seh a soh wi tan
You must know that’s the way we are

A wan dege sinting smadi a gi mi
It’s a measly thing that someone is giving me

A nyam im nyamop di breshi! He(she) really ate up the breadfruit!

Of course, I could go on. But the point I wish to make here is that Jamaican is quite distinct from English, is rule-governed (has a grammar of its own); has its own ‘standard’, has a community of native speakers, is capable of expressing in writing any concept that can be expressed in English or any other language; and certainly can be expressed orthographically in a uniform way that can — and should– encourage literacy development.

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