To the ear, Jamaican language dances with a melodic syncopated rhythm. Many still believe that Patois (widely referred to as what locals speak as broken English) is the language. However, decades of scholastic and sociological linguistic research proves that Jamaican is indeed a language.

Through the international popularity of Jamaican music and Jamaica’s inordinately high global profile for a country its size, interest in the Jamaican language has been as great. Jamaican slangs and sayings have peppered urban youth speech in the UK for at least a decade now and show no signs of slowing down.

The merits of speaking Jamaican is a post- colonial debacle in today’s Jamaican society. Speaking English means you are more educated, have more social status and access to cultural attaches than the average Jamaican citizen. Chat bad (talk badly) is an insult directed to those who only speak Jamaica’s native tongue. Looking across the working Jamaican landscape, office workers speak standard English whilst those who work outdoors in the markets or sell goods on the street speak Jamaican. It’s an expansion of the slave plantation across Jamaican society. Down to the dark skinned labourers in the sun and the lighter pigmentation of the those in the cool air conditioned cubicles.

What makes a language?

First of all, language cannot be defined as a behaviour, because it behaves unpredictably (i.e bootyliscious is in the Merriam -Webster Dictionary). Words, grammar, speech and writing are all elements that build a language into a conveyor of thoughts and interaction between people. Admittedly, there is a lack of a uniformed way of writing and spelling Jamaican words. Many people, when they venture to do so, anchor spelling on the English language.

Words

The history and development of various Creoles and creolized Englishes of the Caribbean stem from the circumstances that originated in the slave basin measuring 3 ½ million square miles of West and Central Africa. Over 2000  languages and sub languages and their people were heterogeneously gathered, mixed in coffles and human sorting slave castles, thrown in ships and vomited from the ships’ bowels onto the shores in the new world for sale and distribution. The system repeated itself for centuries and made for inevitable language regroupings. African language and folk culture survived in regions where slaves were allocated, now known as the Diaspora.

Two linguists named Cassidy and LePage developed an orthography, that closely reproduces the sound of Jamaican talk. It is called the Cassidy-LePage system. Frederic G. Cassidy was born in Jamaica and moved with his parents to America as a child. In 1951, he received a Fulbright Research Fellowship that allowed him to return to Jamaica and study the language. Using a tape recorder to document Jamaican, Cassidy travelled across the island to capture the native tongue. In 1967, he edited the Dictionary of Jamaican English with Robert Le Page. The book draws from four centuries of written and oral Jamaican language. Cassidy was a major advocate for creole languages to use an independent orthography that did not rely on European spelling conventions.

The more the creole differs phonemically from the lexicalizing language (English, French, Dutch – whatever), the more it must differ in its orthography. It should be taught and learned in a system of its own … Paramount should be a phonemically accurate, consistent, autonomous system,” he was quoted in 1993.

Cassidy pioneered an orthography known as the Cassidy System in 1961. Developed specifically for Jamaican that uses a phonemic system that closely reproduces the sound of the language. The Cassidy System was later adopted and modified by the Jamaican Language Unit (JLU) at University of the West Indies. In 2012 the Bible Society, in collaboration with JLU, translated the New Testament into Jamaican using the Cassidy orthography, it was published as Di Jamiekan Nyuu Testiment.

Grammar

Cassidy developed a method of presenting the Jamaican language in writing. It represents the sounds of the language as authentically as possible without anchoring on the spelling conventions of English. This approach to spelling Jamaican treats it as a language in its own right rather than a broken form or pidgin of English. 

His system has no silent letters anhd each letter or combination is pronounced the same way. Therefore, this system is, easy to learn. 

At first, it can be confusing to someone accustomed to reading English and who thinks that Jamaican is a form of English. Jamaican is a full-fledgedand a word that is pronounced the same in these two languages is often written differently. For example,  the Jamaican and English words for “bite” are pronounced the same way, it is written as “bite” in English and as “bait” in the Jamaican Cassidy system. This can cause some mix up because this is the same spelling as the English word “bait”. The equivalent Jamaican Language word for the English “bait” is, in the Cassidy system, “biet”. The chart below is found on the Jamaican Language Department’s website.

Spelling the Jamaican Way


There are five short vowels:

Single Vowel  Jamaican Word  English Translation 
ban  band 
bel  bell 
sik  sick 
kot  cut 
kuk  cook

Another development in the orthography of the Cassidy LePage system is reflecting the emphasis of the letter h in front of vowels. Emphasize your haitches, you hignorant hass. 

In many West African languages, two vowels should not come together. Jamaican is still very much an oral language where attempts are being made to standardize, it is practical to retain these oral qualities before any more is lost.  Native languages are becoming extinct due to the ubiquity of traditional media and social media. Mass communication and the effects of urbanization have proven to be detrimental to retaining local cultural practices, including speech. In Jamaica, the strong influence and proximity to North America is having an effect on local idioms and expressions. The net result is a dilution of the Jamaican language among the younger generations.

Pluralization is done very differently in Jamaican. While in English the letter s indicates plurality, Jamaicans use dem to signify more than one. Dem is placed after the singular noun.

English/Jamaican

Men/ man dem

Women/ ooman dem

Speech and Writing

European colonization in Africa and the Caribbean meant that their language blended with the local tongue to give orders and allow trade. As a result, an entire family of languages developed known as Pidgin or Creole. Both have many things in common as they share similar linguistic origins. The Jamaican language influenced other countries as missionaries and workers travelled. Because of that, Jamaican has some direct links to the languages heard in Cameroon and Sierra Leone. As trade and travel expanded  in Panama, Honduras and Cuba, and later to London, Brooklyn and Toronto, Jamaicans took their language with them. To this day, the descendants of Jamaican migrants to Limon, Costa Rica speak  Mekatelyu, which translates to let me tell you.

Until now, Jamaican has been an oral language passed on by word-of-mouth across generations. Outside of renowned Jamaican poets Claude McKay’s and Louise Bennett’s poems and a few Anancy stories, there are writers who tried to document the Jamaican language. Despite their efforts, their works did not do justice to the sound, power and resonance of the Jamaican language. This makes it difficult to standardize and serves as a discouragement from further writing and reading.

Jamaicans have different modes of speaking. The Queen’s English is “speaky-spoky” and some things are pronounced a few different ways, also, there is no one correct pronunciation. Pronunciation depends on the speaker’s background, upbringing, education and the context of the word. According to Charles Ferguson theory of Diglossia, when two languages interact, one is given a higher status and is formally written while the other is given a lower status and is conveyed orally. In this instance, English is acrolect while Jamaican is the basilect.

Jamaica’s African heritage and European influence have made a unique language. Jamaican language represents the people, historical struggle, culture and lifestyle. Jamaica is a bilingual country. Children learn to speak Jamaican at home and once they enter school, English is taught as the foremost language. The divide between Jamaican and English is more than linguistics; it’s economic standing, skin color and culture.

 

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