| The Matrix | Rhetoric of Reggae Music | Reggae Links | Dread Library Catalog |

The History and Sociolinguistic development of

the Jamaican Dialect

Erin Trainor


The topic of dialects is one which linguistic anthropologists have spent much time studying. Distinctions made between an actual language, a sub-standard variety of that language and an actual dialect are often unclear and the topic of much debate. Recently in the United States there have been many discussions about Ebonics, or Black English. It has been argued that Ebonics is simply a sub-standard form and degradation of English, while others feel that it should be recognized as an African influenced English dialect. One of the most recognizable forms of African-influenced English is that spoken by the people of Jamaica. Linguists and sociologists alike have studied the formation of this dialect over the years, because it is a prime example of language development resulting from cultural influences. By looking at the development of Jamaican speech from a historical perspective we are able to see exactly how the culture of this island has influenced the evolution of this dialect.

Jamaica is the third largest Caribbean Island, measuring 146 miles at its widest point. The warm weather, high mountains and broad plains provide Jamaica with diversity in climate and agriculture. The population of Jamaica is estimated to be around two million people, with nearly a half-million living in Kingston, the capital and largest city in Jamaica. Of those residing in Jamaica, 90% are of African descent, with the other ten percent made up of mostly Caucasians, East Indians and Chinese (Barrett 1997:3). Popular culture is heavily influenced by the African heritage, while formal behavior is unmistakably British in style. The unofficial language of Jamaica is English; however the form of English spoken there is so greatly deviate from American English, which is barely understandable to those who are not from Jamaica.

The original inhabitants of Jamaica were the Arowak Indians, a group separate from any of those living there today. With the arrival of Columbus in 1494, the Arowaks were introduced to the Europeans, which soon proved to be fatal. By the time Britain conquered Jamaica in 1655, the Arowaks were extinct. Under British rule the slave trade flourished. Plantations were set up, and people from all over Africa were taken from their homelands and brought to Jamaica as slaves. Slavery was extremely profitable in Jamaica, where the climate allowed for mass plantation agriculture. While some slaves, termed "Maroons" by the Spanish, escaped and found refuge in the mountains, those who were forced to work the plantations were also being forced to adapt to their new environment. In 1834, slavery was abolished in Jamaica through a system where the slaves would work for wages and eventually buy their freedom. While this idea was theoretically a good way to displace slavery and bolster the economy, there was simply not enough means to carry it out. The end result was an enormous gap between the upper class and the newly freed slaves who made up the lower class. It is this class struggle that has tormented Jamaicans for years.

In 1963, Jamaica gained independence from Britain. However, poverty was endemic, with over half the population earning only twenty-five dollars a week. At this time all of the money in Jamaica is controlled by the upper class. In Kingston, the poor live in tin houses in the slums of the inner city, while the upper class lives outside the city in the beautiful mountainous suburbs. This division is representative of the two classes of Jamaica. The narrowing of this gap is a goal of the present government; however the degree of separation only promotes fear and hatred among the rich, while the life of the poor only grows more and more unbearable. It is from these roots that a new dialect has grown, but it must be remembered that this new dialect encompasses all the hardships that these people have endured.

Because of the history of Jamaica, there is a specific course that the Jamaican dialect has followed in its formation. There are four major terms used to describe this type of development. The first term is, "lingua franca", which is a natural contact language or trade language. This is used when people with different mother tongues want to communicate with each other. An example of this would be the Swahili used in East Africa(Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics 1994: Vol.1:356). The next term is a more complex type of lingua franca called, "pidgin".

A pidgin is defined as a lingua franca, which arises in order to facilitate communication between speakers of different languages, who are in sustained contact with each other, such as trade or plantation situations(International Encyclopedia of Linguistics 1992: Vol.3:224). Although pidgin is no one groups native language, it involves a mixture of the native languages of its users. Pidgin in comparison to the original languages is usually simplified and is limited in its social role. There is a distinction made between endogenous and exogenous pidgins. Endogenous pidgins are born from the contact between a native population and foreign traders, while exogenous pidgins develop from contact between non-indigenous populations, speaking mutually intelligible languages(Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics 1994: Vol.1:356).

The next term used to describe the development of a dialect is, "creole". Creole, in contrast to pidgin is a native or first language for its speakers. For example, children who are born to pidgin speaking adults on a plantation. As a pidgin is acquired and used as a native language its linguistic resources expand, and as a creole, also shows some development and complication.

The last term described by the International Encyclopedia of Linguistics is the term, "creolization". Creolization is a creole that exists within a standard language from which it derives most of its lexicon, and may evolve toward that standard, yielding a spectrum of varieties. It is at this point that the transition is made from being a variation of a language to becoming a dialect.

It is also important to look at how this transformation from lingua franca to creolization happens. The term sociologists use to describe this development is "morphology". "The growth and morphology in pidgins and creoles is consistent with the phases of development of these languages"(Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics 1994: Vol.6:3186). The phases being referred to are: the jargon or prepidgin, the stabilization phase, the expanded pidgin, the creolization and the postpidgin or postcreole.

The first phase of the morphology is the jargon phase. It is during this phase that the pidgin is created. Logical formatives in words from the parent language are generally dropped. The few that remain are forms which the root and its affix have been frozen, all morpheme boundaries disappearing, making them monomorphemic.

The second phase is the stabilization phase. It is during this phase that some morphology can begin to emerge, as the pidgin is now ready for it. Developments are internally motivated, showing reanalysis in the grammatical development of the pidgin as it progresses toward the achievement of autonomy as a system(Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics 1994: Vol.6:3187).

The third step in the morphology is the expanded pidgin and creolization phases. The morphology continues to develop as the autonomy of the language becomes even more firmly established. However, even when it has creolized, the language still remains analytic. Changes continue with creolization and restrictions continue to be relaxed. "Creole languages generally evince a hodgepodge of diverse word formation processes and devices"(Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics 1994: Vol.6:3188).

The final phase of the morphology is the postpidgin/postcreole phase. This phase is characterized by the borrowing of some inflectional and derivational affixes from the original language. The borrowing of these formatives helps to increase the complexity of the (post)pidgin/creole. However, the continued borrowing of derivational affixes may eventually lead to a significant decline in the multitude of functions of the dialect.

Now that a basis for the analysis of the development of a dialect has been discussed, we can use this information analyze the development of Jamaican speech. To begin, Jamaican English was created out of a need for the British plantation owners to communicate with their slaves. It is at this point that the dialect was still lingua franca. Since the slaves were the mainstay of the plantations, the lingua franca quickly evolved into a pidgin as the plantation owners need to communicate on a regular basis with the slaves. The British spoke "proper London" English, which even at this early time in its developmental stage, had a great impact upon the pronunciation of this dialect. Once the slaves had been on the plantations long enough to bear children, the dialect began evolving again. This time, since the children’s native language would be the pidgin of the Africans and the British, it has become a creole. It is at this state where there is much development as far as deepening and complexity of the dialect. New words or melded words from both languages are constantly being added. Today, the form we know as Jamaican English has been through creolization and is now a separate entity, apart from the mother languages.

What makes Jamaican English more complex than many other pidgin dialects is the range of variation within the dialect, and its relation to the class structure of Jamaica. Linguists use the term "creole continuum" to describe this range between the proper English and the African sound. In Jamaican society however, the speech which leans toward the more British sounding dialect is overwhelmingly associated with the upper class, while the speech used by those living in poverty has many more African influences. This is a source of discrimination against the lower class in Jamaica. They are said to speak sub-standard English, and are assumed to be unintelligent. Today, there are movements against this discrimination as people fight against the stereotype. "Disenchanted youth in Jamaica are recreolizing their speech as a symbol of their alienation from society"(Todd 1984: 18).

There is a third category of Jamaican speech which lies somewhere in the middle of the "creole continuum." This dialect includes elements of Jamaican rhythms and intonations. In Cassidy’s Jamaica Talk, he describes this element as "Jamaicanism". He sites five major divisions in defining this term:

1. Retention, which includes English, words now rare or poetic that are still in common use in Jamaica

2. New formations, which are in turn subdivided into alternations, compositions, and creations

3. Borrowings which are French and Portuguese words which came into English as early as the eighteenth century

4. Onomatopoeic echoisms

5. Usage of words which, though not exclusively Jamaican, is the preferred term of the island(Barrett 1997: 4,5).

Cassidy concludes that the African influence in this element of the dialect is the largest.

In present day Jamaican Society there is a presence which has a strong influence on the community and the language. This group is the Rastafarians. Rastafarianism is a religious movement, which has created cultural change within Jamaica. Its members believe that Haile Selassie, former Emperor of Ethiopia is the savior of the Black people of the world. They view Ethiopia as the Promised Land of the Bible. Often Rastas refer to Africa or Ethiopia as "Zion", and the world of White oppression as "Babylon". These are also Biblical references from the story of the people of Israel who were enslaved by the Babylonians. Rastafarians are recognized by their long "dreadlocks", and have been called rebels because of their attempts to overcome oppression. There is also a connection between Rastafarianism and reggae music. It is through reggae that Rastas have expressed their beliefs and spread their message to the world outside of Jamaica.

Since the 1950’s an addition to the Jamaican dialect has developed. This addition is refereed to as the "Rasta dialect". This new linguistic component is highly symbolic. Much of the Rasta dialect has a double meaning. In this way Rastas are able to communicate among themselves without authority figures knowing what they are talking about. However, with the development of this dialectical element the divide between the upper and lower class is again illustrated through the language.

One of the main ideas within the Rasta dialect is the concept of I and I. Rastas believe that by saying I and I instead of the English forms they, us or we, they are putting everyone on the same level, eliminating the separation between classes. They also believe that by adding I to a word makes it more holy, therefore supreme would be Ipreme. Another linguistic tactic used by the Rastas is to change words, which sound negative. An example of this would be the word understand. Since under is thought of as negative they would change the word to overstand. Another example is the word dedicate. The prefix sound like dead, so therefore the word would be changed to livicate. By doing this they are able to change English words to back their own beliefs.

Many other Rasta words hold significant meaning for those who speak them. "Bald-head" refers to those without dreadlocks, or those who work for the establishment, Babylon. "Isms" is used to denote Babylon’s negative classification system. The next word’s meaning is obvious, the term "polytricksters" refers to politicians and the way in which the government is corrupt.(Rasta/Patua Dictionary 1995) By using words with double meanings and changing English words Rastas have used language to communicate within their community and have profoundly changed the way the Jamaican dialect has continued to evolve. The Rasta talk has been very much incorporated into the speech of the lower class of Jamaica.

Today, the dialect, which is spoken by Jamaicans, is so interwoven with history, politics, and religion. The Jamaican dialect has a soft rhythm and is sweet sounding to the ear. Perhaps it has evolved this way to contrast the harsh nature of Jamaican life. Jamaica is truly an example of a culture that has created for itself a new language with sounds and meanings that are representative of the culture itself. It has moved far away from the language of the slave masters and continues to evolve into a language, which represents the people of today. This also is a dialect, which has not stagnated but continues to grow and will do so into the future. Perhaps someday it will become a language completely separate from English, a language of liberation free from the influences of White oppressors.




Barrett, Leonard E. The Rastafarians. Beacon Press, Boston.


DeCamp, David The Locus of Language in Jamaica. Georgetown

University Press, Washington, D.C.


Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics Volumes 1,3,6. Pergamon Press, NewYork.


International Encyclopedia of Linguistics Volume 3. Oxford University Press, New York.


      Rasta/Patua Dictionary ed. Ogata, Michio updated by Pawka, Mike



Todd, Loreto

Pidgins and Creoles. Modern Englishes. Basil

Blackwell Pub. Lmtd., Oxford.


Zach, Paul ed.

1995 Insight Guides. Jamaica. Hofer Press Pte. Ltd.,