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Jamaican Patois and the Power of
Language in Reggae Music
Creole languages are found all over the world on every continent. When two or more languages come into contact to form a new language a Creole language is born. Some type of human "upheaval" that forces people to find a way to communicate, without using their own languages, stimulates the creation of a Creole language. In the case of Creole languages in the Caribbean, the "upheaval" is the past history of slavery. Most Creole languages are based on one language. In Jamaica the African slaves were thrown into a situation where the only common means of communication was English, or at least broken English, therefor Jamaican Creole has a majority of its roots in English (Sebba 1, 1996). Essential words which people could not find an English name for, such as people, things (like plants and animals) and activities (especially religious ones) were taken from a variety of West African languages. As a result of patois not being an official language, a name for the Jamaican dialect has not been settled to this day. Common names such as Jamaican, Jamaican Creole, Jamaican patwa or patois, Black English, broken English and even baby talk or slang are all used to describe Creole languages. In L. Emilie Adams’ book, Understanding Jamaican Patois, she states that none of these labels are appropriate for the Jamaican dialect. Creole refers to a mixed African/European language as well as Europeans born in the West Indies; therefore it is inappropriate to refer to the language of Africans in Jamaica as Creole. Patois is a term used widely in Jamaica, but patois can refer to any language considered broken or degraded in the world. Pryce (1997) prefers to use the term Jamaican "because it moves toward settling the issue of the status of the language as the legitimate expression of the ethos of the people." Throughout this paper the terms Jamaican Creole or patois, the most popular terms used by linguists and Jamaicans will be used to describe the Jamaican dialect. Language in Jamaica today reflects the history of the country’s interaction with a variety of cultures and languages from many ethnic, linguistic, and social backgrounds. Aside from the Arawaks, the original inhabitants of Jamaica, all people were exiles or children of exiles. Over 90% of the 2.5 million people living in Jamaica today are descendants of slaves brought from western Africa by the British. The local Jamaican language is a reflection of a history of contact with a variety of speakers, but the official language remains to be Standard English (Pryce, 1997). The most influential speakers were immigrants from Africa and Europe. Kwa, Manding, and Kru are amongst the variety of prominent African languages apparent in Jamaican history. Early Modern English was brought to the Caribbean by sailors, soldiers, indentured servants, convicts, and settlers (lower-class whites) in the form of regional and non-standard dialects. For the most part Early Modern English was highly conservative (Lalla and D’Costa, 1989). Today in Jamaica, Jamaican patois falls at one extreme of the linguistic spectrum while Standard English lies at the other end of the spectrum. The majority of the population falls in between the two (Adams, 1991). At one end there is the educated model spoken by the elite, which follows the "London Standard". At the other extreme is what linguists call "creolized" English, fragmented English speech and syntax developed during the days of slavery with African influences. This is the speech of the peasant or laborer with little education. In the middle of the language scale there is the inclusion of Jamaican rhythm and intonation of words, which evolved within the country (Cassidy, 1961 and Barrett, 1997). Cassidy (1961) calls this "Jamaicanism", which he classifies into five...
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