Jamaican English

Jamaican English

Jamaican English or Jamaican Standard English is a dialect of English spoken in Jamaica. It encompasses, in a unique way, parts and mergers of both American English and British English dialects. Typically it uses British English spellings but does not reject American English spellings. [Andrea Sand (1999), "Linguistic Variation in Jamaica. A Corpus-Based Study of Radio and Newspaper Usage", Tübingen: Narr,.]

Although the distinction between the two is best described as a continuum rather than a solid line, [Peter L. Patrick (1999), "Urban Jamaican Creole. Variation in the Mesolect". Amsterdam/Philadelphia: Benjamins.] it is not to be confused with Jamaican Patois (what linguists call Jamaican Creole), nor with the vocabulary and language usage of the Rastafarian movement. [Velma Pollard (2000), "Dread Talk". Montreal: McGill-Queen's UP.] ("Patois" or Patwa is a French term referring to regional languages of France, which include some Creole languages, but in Jamaica it refers to Jamaican Creole, which Jamaicans have traditionally seen as "broken" or incorrect Standard English).


Jamaican Standard English is grammatically similar to British Standard English (see British English). Recently, however, due to Jamaica's proximity to the United States and the resulting close economic ties and high rates of migration (as well as the ubiquity of American cultural/entertainment products such as movies, cable television and popular music) the influence of American English has been increasing steadily. As a result, structures like "I don't have" or "you don't need" are almost universally preferred over "I haven't got" or "you needn't"."'


Recent American influence is even more obvious in the lexicon (babies sleep in "cribs" and wear "diapers" [or "pampers"] ; some people live in "apartments" or "townhouses", for example). Generally, older vocabulary tends to be British (babies wear "nappies", not "diapers"; cars have "bonnets" and "windscreens"; children study "maths", use "rubbers" to erase their mistakes and wish they were on "holiday"), while newer phenomena are typically "imported" together with their American names.

An interesting use of mixed British and American vocabulary is with automobiles, where the American term "trunk" is almost universally used instead of the British term "boot", the British word "sleeping policeman" is used instead of the American word "Speed Bump”, while the engine covering is always referred to by the British term "bonnet". This is probably because the American term, "hood", is used in Jamaica as a vulgar slang for penis.

Naturally, Jamaican Standard also uses many local words borrowed from Jamaican Patois, such as "duppy" for "ghost"; "higgler" for "informal vendor"; and of course lots of words referring to local produce and food items - "ackee", "callaloo", "guinep", and "bammy".


The most noticeable aspect of Jamaican English for speakers of other varieties of English is the pronunciation or "accent". In many ways, the accent bears great resemblance to that of southern Ireland, particularly Cork, possibly a remnant of Jamaica's former colonial ties and to a lesser extent, American. Jamaican Standard pronunciation, while it differs greatly from Jamaican Patois pronunciation, is nevertheless recognizably Caribbean. Giveaway features include the characteristic pronunciation of the diphthong in words like "cow", which is more closed and rounded than in Standard British or American English; the pronunciation of the open-mid back unrounded vowel (IPA2|ʌ, like in "b"u"t")(again, more closed than the SB or AE version, though not as closed as in the Creole); semi-rhoticity, i.e. the dropping of the "-r" in words like "water" (at the end of unstressed syllables) and "market" (before a consonant); but not in words like "car" or "dare" (stressed syllables at the end of the word). Merger of the diphthongs in "fair" and "fear" takes place both in Jamaican Standard and Jamaican Patois, resulting in those two words (and many others, like "bear" and "beer") becoming homophones. (Standard speakers typically pronounce both closer to "air", while Creole speakers render them as "ear"). The short "a" sound (man, hat) is very open, similar to its Irish or Scottish versions.

Language use: Standard versus Creole

Jamaican Standard and Jamaican Patois exist side by side in the island in a typical diglossic pattern (see diglossia). Creole is used by most people for everyday, informal situations - it's the language most Jamaicans use at home and are most familiar with; it's also the language of most local popular music. Standard, on the other hand, is the language of education, high culture, government, the media and official/formal communications. It is also the native language of a small minority of Jamaicans (typically upper class and upper/traditional middle class). Most Creole-dominant speakers have a fair command of Standard English, through schooling and exposure to official culture and mass media; their receptive skills (understanding of Standard English) are typically much better than their productive skills (their own intended Standard English statements often show signs of Creole interference).

Most writing in Jamaica is done in Standard English (including private notes and correspondence). Jamaican Patois has no standardized spelling [Dynamics of orthographic standardization in Jamaican Creole and Nigerian Pidgin, Dagmar Deuber and Lars Hinrichs, "World Englishes" 26, #1 (February 2007), pp. 22–47, doi|10.1111/j.1467-971X.2007.00486.x.] and has only recently been taught in some schools. As a result, the majority of Jamaicans can read and write Standard English only, and have trouble deciphering written dialect (in which the writer tries to reflect characteristic structures and pronunciations to differing degrees, without compromising readability). Written Creole appears mostly in literature, especially in folkloristic "dialect poems"; in humoristic newspaper columns; and most recently, on internet chat sites frequented by younger Jamaicans, who seem to have a more positive attitude toward their own language use than their parents. [Lars Hinrichs (2006), "Codeswitching on the Web: English and Jamaican Patois in E-Mail Communication". Amsterdam/Philadelphia: Benjamins.]

While, for the sake of simplicity, it is customary to describe Jamaican speech in terms of Standard versus Creole, a clear-cut dichotomy does not adequately describe the actual language use of most Jamaicans. Between the two extremes -"broad Patois" on one end of the spectrum, and "perfect" Standard on the other - there are various in-between varieties. This situation typically results when a Creole language is in constant contact with its standard (superstrate or lexifier language) and is called a creole speech continuum. The least prestigious (most Creole) variety is called the basilect; the Standard (or high prestige) variety the acrolect; and in-between versions are known as mesolects.

Consider, for example, the following forms:

*"meh ah wok oba deh suh" (basilect)
*"im workin ova deh suh" (low mesolect)
*"(H)e (h)is workin' over dere" (high mesolect)
*"He is working over there." (acrolect)

(As noted above, the "r" in "over" is not pronounced in any variety, but the one in "dere" or "there" is.)

Jamaicans choose from the varieties available to them according to the situation. A Creole-dominant speaker will choose a higher variety for formal occasions like official business or a wedding speech, and a lower one for relating to friends; a Standard-dominant speaker is likely to employ a lower variety when shopping at the market than at her workplace. Code-switching can also be metaphoric (e.g., a Standard-dominant speaker switching to a lower variety for humoristic purposes, or to express solidarity).

See also

* Regional accents of English speakers


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