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Jamaican Patois and the Power of

Language in Reggae Music

Stacey Herbold



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 divisions:

  1. Retention, which includes English words now rare or poetic that are still in common use in Jamaica.
  2. New formations, which ate in turn subdivided into alterations, 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 on the island.

The Forming of a Language

Jamaican history and the making of language are based on the experience of exile. In the early 16th century Spanish settlement began in Jamaica with the Arawaks as their first slave labor force. Within a 100 years very few Arawaks survived due to a deathly epidemic. The only evidence of the Arawak dialect in Jamaica today is a few loan words, place names, food, natural objects, and events (hurricane) (Lalla and D’Costa, 1990). Xaymaca is actually an Arawak word meaning "island of springs", which is where the name Jamaica is derived from (Pryce, 1997). It is possible that the first contact of the Arawaks and the Spaniards may have led to an early pidgin or bilingualism among the first generation of mixed blood. West Africans were brought to Jamaica to work as slaves on plantations for the Spaniards. Throughout Spanish rule, the Arawaks had contact with Spanish colonists, Portuguese Christians, Jews, Amerindians (brought in as slaves from other parts of the Caribbean), and West Africans (Lalla and D’Costa, 1990).

In 1655 the English attacked the Spanish colony bringing with them new influences. Arriving with the invaders were soldiers recruited from England, Barbados, and Montserrat; settlers from Surinam, Barbados, Bermuda, New England, and Virginia; Jews from Brazil; indentured servants from Bristol (Southwest England dialect); midland and northern lower-class speakers; convicts from large prisons in England; Romany speakers; and a variety of African speakers. The birth of population centers, such as Port Royal, Passage Fort, and Kingston, served as mixing pot of many different speakers. Africans came to acquire forms of English because of the domination of white dialects (Lalla and D’Costa, 1990).

During the heyday of sugar, between 1700-1834, increasing numbers of Africans were imported to work on the large plantations. Conflict of identity emerged in the 18th century when many Creole whites firmly identified with Jamaica and did not want to be called Englishmen. This is the period thought to be most responsible for the forming of Jamaican language, which we now call Jamaican Creole. By the end of the century Africans made up a quarter of the slave population and Creole took precedence over the African past. Increases in written records of Jamaican Creole were seen during the abolitionist movement (1770-1838). English continued to influence Jamaican Creole in the form of biblical language and prayer book language (Lalla and D’Costa, 1990). Today linguists agree that East Indians, Spanish, and Arawaks have contributed a little vocabulary to the Jamaican dialect, but the majority of non-English terms, grammar, and phonology is African (Adams, 1991).

Is Jamaican Patois an Official Language?

The perception that English-lexicon Creole languages are a form of "bad English" still persists today. Jamaican patois continues to be considered an unacceptable official language and an informal language not to be used for any formal purpose. Creole speakers are often compared to those speakers of Standard English. The similarity of Creole to English has led Creole speakers to be labeled as socially and linguistically inferior, although Jamaica Creole is increasingly showing up in newspapers, once known for their old-fashioned Standard English, on the radio, and in songs (Sebba 1, 1996 and Freed, 1993).

Creole is similar to English in terms of vocabulary and most speakers are inferior in socioeconomic terms, so it is easy to assume Creole is a poor form of English. In the past 30 or 40 years linguists have finally begun to recognize Creole as a language in itself. After investigating the history and use of Creole, linguists now believe that Creole languages are their own individual language which have come about through their own histories, with mixed roots from Europe and Africa. Although there has been more and more interest in Creole languages and their identities, Creole is never used in education or for official purposes in the English speaking Caribbean. There is no standard way to write in Creole but this has not stopped writers from publishing and creating poems in written in Creole such as, dub poetry, and dialogue in novels, short stories, and plays. In most written Creole modified Standard English is used. Following is an example of the variance of spelling of Standard English to words in British Creole (Sebba 1, 1996).

Table 1. Difference of Spellings in British Creole and Standard English

Standard English



t’ing, ting


nutten, not’n’, notin’


nuh, noh, nu


cyan, cyaan, kaan, kean


caw, cau’, caa


bwoy, bway


There is no final authority, such as a dictionary, to turn to when writing in Creole, therefor the written language cannot be right or wrong. When explaining why no linguistically discrete London Creole variety has been established, Sebba ((2)1996) states that the competing English-derived Creoles have prevented the emergence of a single dominant linguistic system, meaning there is little structural or phonological basis, due to such a variety of Creoles, to create one system. Cassidy and Le Page (1976/1980) were the first to create a spelling system for Caribbean English-lexicon Creole. Their work, The Dictionary of Jamaican English, is designed to use a spelling system where Jamaican Creole consonants and vowel sounds are represented. L. Emilie Adams wrote a book, Understanding Jamaican Patois, to help non-Jamaicans to understand Creole, presenting two versions of spelling, one in modified Standard English and the other a modified version of the Cassidy and Le Page orthography.

Modified Standard English:

So afta mi daddy lef im, Mama leave

an gaan hustle ohside noh,

for shi like see di money come een,

you know, shi no like fi know say,

well den, di man a live offa im own.

Adaptation of Cassidy and Le Page:

So afta mi dadi lef im, Mama liiv

an gaan husl otsaid noh,

far shi laik si i muni kum iin,

yu no, shi no laik fi nuo se

wel den di man a lif afa im uon.

These two works are helpful in discussion between linguists and may help the dialect gain more respect through educating the public, but the forms in the books are still not used by poets or novelists who actually write in Creole. This may be a result of the books being fairly expensive and inaccessible. The development and use of a Creole spelling system is often ignored because of the widespread belief that Creole is inappropriate to use when reading and writing. Although linguists have made attempts at creating spelling systems these are no widely publicized, therefore many writers may not have even heard of them (Sebba 1, 1996).

There is a growing movement pressuring the government to make Jamaican Creole an official language. In March of 1999, a group of students from the University of the West Indies/ Mona campus put a proposal together in hope of gaining "Jamaican" language or patois an official status. It is argued that making Jamaican an official language will help to increase the self-esteem of many Jamaicans and add more strength to their identity if patois was considered as valuable a language as any other language. Recognition of patois may also increase communication skills and social interaction in Jamaica. Most Jamaicans already know patois and it is believed that with only a few hours of formal instructions, an English speaker with reasonable intelligence will be able to learn the basics (Vasciannie, 1999).

The students at the University of West Indies have not been the first ones to push for patois to be used for official purposes, but they still must face the same counter arguments. If Jamaican Creole was adopted as official it would be used for matters of state, politics, history, and any other language communication issues. Many people do not like the idea of the possibility of traffic signs reading "nuh park ya so" or "ungle one way". It has also been suggested that there is no reason to make patois another official language, when students are already having a hard time mastering Standard English in school (Vascianne, 1999). The high illiteracy rate is partially blamed by many Jamaicans on the presence of two languages in the country, although professor Carl Stone believes that the reason students are having trouble with the English language is more a result of students not reading enough (Pryce, 1997). It may be easy to learn the basics of patois, but it is often argued that in Jamaica today you need to be able to read and write in Standard English in order to attain a successful career (Pryce, 1997). Mooris Cargill, a Jamaican columnist claims, "If patois continues to gain legitimacy it will destroy English. What is wrong with that is the increased isolation it will cause for these little island countries. Our only hope for greater involvement in the international marketplace, and without English as our major language we won’t be able to compete" (Freed, 1993). These are all substantial arguments, but Pryce (1997) does make a good point that this argument goes deeper than it appears. Rather than being about bilingualism or illiteracy, this debate is more about Jamaicans creating a distinctive identity for themselves as well as acceptance of their identity stemming from their unique heritage.

Another barrier to Jamaican Creole becoming an official language is a lack of a spelling system. This arises from the problem that no agreement has been made to conclude if the spelling system should reflect the lexifer/coloniser language or if an entirely new system should be created. Some people feel introducing a spelling system based on the Standard English system may have the negative effect of strengthening the perception that Creole is an inferior form of Standard English. Other people just do not want another official language and believe that if you have mastered Standard English then you are morally obligated to use it at all times (Sebba 1, 1996). These are the people who still share the view of Sir Harry Johnston, an English anthropologist who wrote in 1910 study of black life in the Caribbean that patois "is a barbarous and clumsy jargon" (Freed, 1993).

A Little Lesson in Patois

Several patois phrases are presented below which are used by Jamaicans today, of what the linguists label patois , but what many some Jamaicans call "Real English" ("Jamaican Talk").

"A fe me cyar."

Translation: "It’s my car."

"Mi a —go lef today."

Translation: "I am leaving today."

"Im is badda dan dem. No badda mi."

Translation: "He is worse then they are. Don’t bother me."

"Bwaay! Mi ded tink de test was eazy."

Translation: "Boy! I thought that test would have been easy."

"Is the dutty duppy man dweet."

Translation: "The dirty ghost did it."

"Tek you time an mine it bruk."

Translation: "Take your time, you might break it."

Just by looking at these translations it is indisputable that the Jamaican patois is a relative of Standard English, but at the same time it is not simply broken English, but a distinctive dialect. You cannot merely know Standard English to understand patois clearly because the dialect is a language in itself and it maintains its own structure and guidelines, as any other language. Peter Patrick, a linguist and Creole specialist at Georgetown University, states that Creole languages "are simply easier to learn" but, "that doesn’t mean that they are less powerful, or less sophisticated. But they are more transparent" (Gladwell, 1994).

To get a brief idea of how patois or any language functions, it is easiest to break it down into small fragment to take a closer look at what is going on. Consider Genesis 1:26 from the Jamaican-Creole Bible:

"Mek we mek mankine fi stay like how we stay; mek we mek dem fi fayva we; and mek dem rule ova all di fish dem inna di sea and all di bird whe’ up a sky an ova di cow dem and ova all di eart, and ova everything that crawl pon di eart."

Derived from make,"mek", is often used in Creole to represent "let". The first "Mek" of "Mek we mek mankine" does translate as let, but the second "mek" translates to "make", the Standard English form. Peter Patrick, a linguist and Creole specialist at Georgetown University, explains that some words do double or triple duty as a result of a language being young with the same requirements and needs as older languages, but with a smaller "lexical stock". In the line after "mankine", "fi" displays another example of this. "Fi" means "to" or "for to" in the context of the Genesis verse, but it may also be used to represent "should" or "ought". "A" also has many different uses from a demonstrative "See a’ man de?" ("See that man there?") to a marker of emphasis: "a fas’ him run fas’ " ("he’s really running fast") (Gladwell, 1994).

One of the most distinctive features of Creole is using "we" to replace "us". In English nouns have prefixes and suffixes, pronouns vary, and verbs take on different endings to distinguish different tenses. In Creole, most of the rules do not apply. For instance, "we" in Creole is used in its Standard English sense as a subject pronoun, but also, as is in Genesis 1:26, in place of "us" and "our". Also, in most rural dialects "im" is used to address men and women, instead of "he" or "she" (Gladwell, 1994). Adams (1991) gives a more in detail interpretation of personal pronouns:






1st person

mi, I

I or me


we or us

2nd person



yu, uno

you, you all

3rd person


he, she, her, him, it (animate)


they, them


she, her



i’, it, hit

it (inanimate)

When conjugating a verb, Creole speakers add another word, instead of changing the ending or the word itself. For example, in Creole "Me go" means "I go," "Me a go" means "I am going," "Me a go go" means "I am going to go," and "Me en go" means "I went." Linguists call this "analytical" grammar and believe it is the type of communication strategy that anyone would instinctively use when forced to create a way to communicate. They also contend that the grammar is actually very similar to strategies used by children trying to learn to speak (Gladwell, 1994).

In the line "stay like how we stay", "stay" is meant to represent being like something or having the properties of something. "To mek mankine fi stay like how we stay" means " to make mankind to be like how we are like," or literally to make man in God’s image. "Stay" is an example of how some meanings of words have come about to mean something very different from the Standard English definition. This may be a result of blacks having limited contacts with whites before and after slavery (Gladwell, 1994).

"Mek we mek dem fi fayva we" may be translated as "Let us make them to favor us." The word "favor" is used in an Elizabethan English sense, which hints that the English basis the slaves used was the vernacular English of the 17th and 18th centuries. "Pon" in the last phrase of the Genesis verse, "everything that crawl pon di eart", is derived from "upon", another clue pointing towards this (Gladwell, 1994).

"Di fish-dem’" and "Di cow-dem" are used in classical analytical grammar terms. "Dem" is placed after the noun to make fish and cows plural. "Dem" stems from the English "them", but the addition of "dem" to make plural nouns is derived from West African languages, but "dem" also translates to "them" in Standard English. People in Jamaica may use "dem" in either manner depending on level of education and social class of the speaker. Jamaican Creole varies throughout Jamaica as the language constantly changes as the dialect becomes more and more inflected (Gladwell, 1994).

Dread Talk

Beginning in the 1950’s a twist to the Jamaican dialect emerged with the spread of the Rastafarian movement/religion. This highly symbolic and revolutionary dialect may be referred to as soul language, ghetto language, hallucinogenic language, or dread talk. Dread talk is religious and brings Jamaican patois to a more philosophical level. Rastas view speech as a "holy tool", just as in a variety of African cultures, yet they probably do not even realize this but they just know that their language is natural and feels right. Certain elements of dread talk, such as the poetic biblical references and metaphors, makes dread talk mysterious to those that are not emersed in the culture. Barrett (1997) states three reasons why it is difficult for an outsider to interpret this Rasta dialect:

    1. It is ungrammatical when spoken by the uneducated.
    2. It is Jamaican dialect used at the philosophical level.
    3. Subject-object opposition and verbs are scarce in Rastafarian speech.

Pulis (1993) discusses a philosophy if language known as "word-sound-power" in relation to the Rasta dialect. "Word-sound power is a way of speaking in which a tension between Creole and Standard-English words and meanings are used to contest traditional constructions of identity." Rastafarians break down English words and mix them together to form new words called up-full sounds revealing contradictions between sounds and meanings of the words. For example , the "de" sound in the word "dedicate" is replaced with "liv" to form the up-full sound "livicate". "The sound prefix, "de" is replaced because of its appearance in dismal words such as death and destruction.

Rastas believe that no speaker is under, beneath or below another whether they speak Creole, English, or dread talk. This idea is portrayed in the replacement of the "un" sound in "understand" with "o" to form the word "overstand," implying that all speakers are at the same level. The word "oppression" is changed to "down-press-I" because more people are forced down or restrained socially or economically. Since "wisdom" sounds like it is related to the word dumb, the "dom" is thrown away and may be replaced with man or "mon" to create the word "wiz-mon" (Pulis, 1993). There is also some vocabulary that is strictly Rasta. When someone is angry or upset they might spew out curses such as "ras clot" or "bumba clot," meaning that you came out as a blood clot instead of an ovum from your mother’s womb.

One of the most powerful letters in the alphabet used by the Rastafarians is the letter, number, and word "I". "I" and the noun phrase "I and I" replaces the pronouns "him," she," "we," "you," and "me. "The phrase "I and I" is used to remind the speaker and the listeners that Rastafari is a community of people all the time and it praises and acknowledges the presence of the Almighty (Pulis, 1993). For example a Rasta would say "I and I went home," never "I went home." The "u" sound in words such as "unity" and "human" is replaced with the first person "I" to create "I-nity" and "I-man." In general "I" represents positivity. The word "irie" is the ultimate up-full sound meaning uplifting spiritual or nothing could be better (Nicholas, 1996).

Of all the components of dread talk the most prominent element may be the way the dialect is expressed. Many Rastas express their thoughts with rhythm, depth, sound, and passages from the Bible so as to reveal and heighten their meaning. Any lengthy talk by a Rasta is not considered "reasoning" not a "conversation." Elements of verbal communication are used by Rastas in a poetic manner to share their experiences and reason with others. Rastas do not converse back and forth, but they "reason" by putting their minds together to discuss anything from politics to sports or everyday Jamaican life (Nicholas, 1996).

Language in Reggae Music

The ultimate proof that patois and dread talk are recognizably powerful languages identified with the Jamaican culture may be seen in the wide spread of reggae music from North America to Africa. Reggae music speaks to society and communicates many political and religious beliefs of Rastafari. Whether you are captured by the beat of the music or the lyrics, the music pulls you in until you are forced to try and understand what actually is going on behind the music. Just being present at a reggae show such as Burning Spear or a Steel Pulse, you can feel the energy around you and the energy flowing back and forth between the stage and the audience. The energy is full of love and gives you a feeling of oneness with those around you and maybe even the earth itself. The energy demands you to accept its power and to receive its message. It is a message of a past full of exile and oppression and a future full of strength screaming for equality. The music encourages movement and involvement mentally, physically, and emotionally.

Reggae musicians may use the symbolism and power of the word, such as metaphor, to instigate movement. For instance, Rastas consider "Babylon" "the corrupt establishment of the ‘system,’ Church and State,…the police." In other words Babylon is the "downpressor." Babylon is a major theme in reggae music. In Bob Marley’s song "Chant Down Babylon" (Confrontation), Marley sings "Come we go burn down Babylon/One more time/Come we go chant down Babylon one more time/For them soft/Yes them soft." In "Babylon System" (Survival), Marley proclaims Babylon is a vampire "sucking the children day by day/sucking the blood of the sufferers." "Zion" is the opposite of "Babylon." It represents a place of freedom and equality. In "Rasta Man Chant" (Burnin’)Marley sings: "I say fly away to Zion/Fly away home/One bright morning/When my work is over/Man will fly away home" (King and Jensen, 1995)

Biblical references strengthen the power of reggae music. Jehovah or "Jah" is the Rastafarian God, who is considered the past emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie. "Jah" symbolizes love, power, goodness, and protection. In "Duppy Conqueror" (Burnin’) Marley describes gaining freedom: "The bars could not hold me/Force could not control me, now/They try to keep me down/But Jah put I around." Ras Tafari was the name given to Haile Selassie and is chanted in many reggae songs as "Jah-Ras-Tafari" or as his complete title "King of Kings, Lord of Lords, His Imperial Majesty the Conquering Lion of the Tribe Judah, Elect of God" (King and Jensen, 1995).

The power of language in reggae music has stung the government and has been adopted by politicians. In 1996 the Jamaican government revealed a little uneasiness and fear of the power of reggae music by banning Anthony B’s "Fire Pon Rome" from the radio. Due to the nature of the song containing a "lengthy cataloguing of national sinners, including the prime ministerial candidates and Jamaican corporate heads" the song was declared inappropriate for the radio waves. Yet to ease the controversy after realizing the popularity of Anthony B the government did sponsor his presence at MIDEM ’97, a worldwide music industry gathering at Cannes (Oumano, 1997).

Politicians are now also recognizing the possibilities of reggae music as a message carrier. In an effort to build an image more appealing to "ghetto voters," politicians are actually offending more people by embracing what is not theirs. Singer/deejay Tony Rebel’s hit single, "Jah Is By My Side," was heard in a televised conference of the J.L.P. (Jamaican Labor Party) in 1997. The enraged Rebel backlashed with the comment: "Jamaican people know I burn fire on politicians." The politicians have even been known to use people’s music without their consent, putting musicians in places where they may not want to be (Oumano, 1997). It is clear that politicians must learn that reggae music is not meant for the political arena as it stands today and should remain a source of power for the revolutionaries. The controversy that has stemmed from using reggae music in the political arena makes it clear that politicians need to find a new approach to attract the so called "ghetto" or the more intelligently stated "downpressed." A good start may be to give the "downpressed" a reason to trust, "keep their (your) culture," and "not (don’t) be afraid of the vulture" ("Rastaman Live Up", Confrontation).


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