Jim Casey


Tuna Snider: The Rhetoric of Reggae

Creolization: an Analysis of Jamaican Language

            As written by Alicia Beckford Wassink, “It has been said that language is the theatre for the enacting of the social, political, and cultural life of a people, as well as the embodiment of that drama (Alleyne 1993)”(Wassink, 1999).   

There has been much confusion and debate over the meanings of the terms “creolization” and “creole.”   The terms are quite ambiguous, and in many cases their meanings lie in the opinion of the beholder, but creolization has been agreed upon in some sense to indicate an ongoing socio-cultural mixing process of two or more ethnic groups.  Raquel Romberg explains that creolization entails more than just the simple mixing of cultures; it indicates the emergence of a new culture.  He states that for the creolization process to occur, the displacement of a people must take place, and that the term suggests, “an unplanned and unfriendly conquest or physical invasion” (Romberg, 2002). “Creole” can refer to a number of things, but here I will refer to it from its context in Jamaica as the language born of the creolization process that started taking place in the 1700’s, which is still taking place today (synonymous with the more local term “Patois”). 

Peter L. Patrick writes about Jamaican language in its socio-historical context.  In 1658, the population in Jamaica consisted of about 8,500, which consisted of settlers and soldiers from Great Britain, Ireland, and the Americas.  This number included some African slaves as well who accounted for approximately one fifth of the total population.  By 1677, the population of enslaved Africans grew roughly to parallel that of white people in Jamaica, both individual populations totaling around 9,000.  In 1703, the white population had slightly declined and the number of African slaves in Jamaica exploded to about 45,000.  At this point, the Jamaican Creole or Patois language began to evolve.  Today, language in Jamaica still greatly reflects the island’s brutal history as a slavery-based sugar colony of Great Britain until its relatively recent independence in 1962 (Patrick, 1999).

Joyce Justus describes the state of the language situation in Jamaica that was present about twenty years ago (most of which is still the case).  Standard Jamaican English, which was introduced by Britain in 1655, is the language spoken in schools, in churches of institutionalized religion, and in situations of commerce and government.  The two daily newspapers and all radio and television news programs in Jamaica, having been conducted in Jamaican English, caused the problem of differential abilities of understanding the media as people from rural Jamaican settings often have a more difficult time understanding Jamaican English  (Justus, 1987).   Jamaican English and Patois, the two main languages, are spoken differently in different parts of Jamaica (comparable to English in the United States).  When I refer to Jamaican English I refer to English that corresponds with or nears Standard British English.  Justus describes how post-primary education in Jamaica promotes the use of Jamaican English, and stresses the similarities to British English in terms of tone, pitch, and vocabulary.  Jamaican students have been issued a school-leaving test similar to that issued in Britain, so Jamaican curriculum tends to promote fluency in Jamaican English.  Going to Britain has been a desire for those Jamaicans who seek higher education, and the majority of Jamaicans that withhold positions of prestige or influence have spent time studying in Britain.  How effectively someone speaks Jamaican English has become an indicator of social class, education, economic standing, and urbanization (Justus, 1987).   

The dominant theory of the origin of Jamaican Creole, or Patois, is based on the introduction of African slaves to the new world during the slave trade (Wassink, 1999).  Belizean anthropologist and archeologist John Morris describes how slaves of different ethnic groups were transported to the New World from different parts of Africa.  Their languages were unintelligible to one another, and in most cases slaves who spoke the same or similar languages were intentionally separated to enhance communication barriers as to prevent conspiracy of revolt (Morris).  Michel-Rolph Trouillot writes about the plantation system, which was the framework around which the creolization took place.  It is a common misconception that the interbreeding of white slave masters and black slaves would have produced relatively light skinned offspring, but we must remember that the slaves greatly outnumbered the British (Trouillot, 2002).  This first theory of the origin of Jamaican Creole as well as other Caribbean creoles explains that what we consider to be a creole language today is the slaves interpretation of the British slave masters’ “proper English,” with heavy infusions of Niger Congo languages, especially Akan-Ashanti which is spoken on the coast of West Africa (Justus, 1987).  It is believed by some that the slaves adopted this simplified and fragmented version of English in order to communicate with one another as well as their slave masters (Wassink, 1999).

A rival theory, put forth primarily by Douglas Taylor in 1963, argues that all New World Creole languages are descended from an Afro-Portuguese creole, which developed on the Guinea Coast where it was widespread and acquired by slaves prior to their departure to the New World.  This language is seen to be the predecessor of Jamaican Creole, Haitian French-based Creole, Dutch-based Papiemento, and the Taki-Taki language of Suriname (Justus, 1987).  There is extensive evidence to support each of these theories.  The major fundamental differences in each of these creoles lead me to find the first theory more plausible.  A believer in Occam’s razor, I think that it would be much more simple of an explanation that the extremely different creoles did not all originate from one language.

Patois has been a language of informality in Jamaica.  It tends to be a child’s first language, and is used in every day conversation.  Once learned in school, Jamaican English is used sparingly for more official and upstanding conversations.  A child is pressured in school to learn Jamaican English, but if he or she is addressed in Patois by a friend and chooses to respond in Jamaican English, it could be seen as inappropriately formal and ultimately condescending.  In many cases, Patois is a useful and amusing weapon against foreigners and those of high social class and economic standing (who are incapable f understanding the language or choose to act as if they do not understand it as to not appear of a lower social status).  People of supposed inferior status often resort to Patois when dealing with those who claim higher status.  Sometimes the person speaking Patois will all together pretend that they are unable to understand Standard English.  The educated Jamaican who can speak Standard English fluently and still chooses to have a conversation in Patois is generally admired by society.  This is especially useful for those attempting to graduate to positions that deal with politics and government, because without the use of Patois it is more difficult to communicate with those who might have trouble understanding Jamaican English, or who can but might view it as condescending  (Justus, 1987).  As described by Morris, any situation like this where a population uses one of two separate languages or two distinct dialects of a language depending on the situation is defined by the word “diglossia” (Morris).

Dennis R. Craig emphasizes the difficulty of teaching Standard English to Jamaicans and points out the Jamaican education system’s often failure to do so, and he proposes three main reasons for this attempt to teach Standard English to nonstandard speakers.  The first reason is that they do not perceive the language as necessary to their social needs amongst their immediate environment.  This may be true, but in order to graduate to positions of prestige, and for global communication, fluency in Standard English is necessary.  The second difficulty deals with the education system in general when it comes to teaching a second language to nonstandard speakers:  the simulated social situations that are commonly used in language teaching programs in schools are not real-life social situations.  They do not usually function in teaching a language with the effectiveness that actual social situations have, given that experiencing a language in real-life situations is a means by which a language is best learned.  The third reason is the common negative opinion of Jamaicans toward Standard English.  A primary reason for this negative connotation of English is the prejudice against social stratification (Craig, 1983).  

In my opinion, this prejudice toward Standard English and social stratification is descended from the history of Jamaica.  Social stratification may be accompanied by a heavily negative connotation because one day, at the bottom of the social stratum, lived black people who were stolen from Africa by the English-speaking British and were brought to the New World.  If my ancestors were viciously oppressed, I’m sure I wouldn’t be fully enthusiastic about learning the assumed-to-be superior language of my oppressor.  One who has taken a language class can bear witness to the difficulty of learning a second language as a result of this simulation of social situations (e.g., after having taken Spanish classes for five years, I still find it very difficult partaking in simple, everyday conversation when I come upon it in the real world).  If the social setting is not demanding of the use of a language, the language will not be explored and practiced, leading to a hindrance on a peoples’ fluency to speak the language.  While I was taking a strategic writing course in Belize, the teacher was challenged with a great differential in the ability to read, speak, and write in Standard English between native English-speaking American students and native English-based Creole speaking Belizeans who reserved Standard English for scholarly purposes.

One must keep in mind the dynamic aspect of the still occurring creolization process.  Matters of culture and language are constantly changing in Jamaica, and where a speaker falls on the Patois to Jamaican English continuum is not necessarily completely polarized.  A person may be speaking Patois, Jamaican English, or in a way that falls somewhere in between Patois and Jamaican English.  English-speaking immigrants to Jamaica, for example, may tend to fall here in the middle of the continuum (as the Patois that they pick up is integrated to their vocabulary).  Peter Patrick writes: “The search for a single point, a linguistic and social division, where Standard Jamaican English starts and Standard Jamaican Creole ends, is a misguided product of colonial language ideologies” (Patrick, 1999).  Although he makes this observation, Patrick acknowledges that one can still make illustrative contrasts between Patois and Jamaican English.

L. Emilie Adams expresses that there is a problem with writing Patois (Adams, 1999).  The written language is very much in its infancy.  While there are set grammatical rules, there is no standard system for spelling, and phonetic spellings often conflict with common Standard English terms.  In Adams book “Understanding Jamaican Patois,” she does a great job of outlining pronunciation, grammatical rules, and pretty much everything that an outsider would need to know in order to speak and understand Patois.  She retains the maximum amount of English spellings in order to retain the maximum amount of familiarity for a native English speaker.  There are many unfamiliar words and idiomatic expressions contained in Patois that are unfamiliar to Standard English that someone enthusiastic about learning to speak and understand Patois should look up (in Adams’ book and from other sources).  Below is a simplified outline of the aspects of grammar and pronunciation encompassed by Patois that is offered by Adams.  Understanding these rules and commonalities gives the non-native speaker a huge step up on the competition when attempting to learn Patois.


Phonetic Peculiarities of Patois


Vowels are pronounced the same as in Spanish:

A: ah or aah

E: eh or ay

I: i or ee

O: oh, long o, or oo sound (as in book)

U: uh, long u, or oo


Commonly the letters T, D, and P when preceded by another consonant are omitted (and often an apostrophe is added to avoid confusion). (E.g., spen/spend; fin’/find; don’/don’t)


Consonants are occasionally reversed. (E.g., flim/film; aks/ask; shotrage/shortage)


“Intrusive” consonants are often included.  (E.g., fishnin/fishing; liard/liar; ongle/only)


Replacement of V with B is common (but never vice versa). (E.g., bex/vex; shoob/shove)


Commonly DL is replaced with GL. (E.g., sagl/saddle; migl/middle; hanggle/handle)


Commonly DR is replaced with J. (E.g., jum/drum; jugs/drugs; junk/drunk)


Commonly J is replaced with D. (E.g., dus/just)


Often H is dropped from or added to words beginning with vowels. (E.g., av/have; hegg/egg; aaty/hearty)

Often W is replaced with H. (E.g., ooman or hooman/woman; hooda/would)


Terminal sounds –own or –ound are replaced with –ung. (E.g., grung/ground; tung/town)


Internal R is often omitted resulting in vowel change. (E.g., bun/burn; tun/turn)

Terminal R is dropped in most cases. (E.g., docta/doctor; slippa/slipper; ya/here)


The initial S in SK, SP, and SK combinations are often omitted. (E.g., ‘kin/skin; ‘pit/spit; ‘tick/stick)


Pronunciation of the TH sound is always replaced with T or D. (E.g., tree/three; tohsan/thousand; dis/this)


Internal –TTL- or -TTL- becomes -KL-. (E.g., likl/little; bokl/bottle; tikle/title)


Pronunciation of the AW sound replaced with AH sound. (E.g., call, brawl, all, etc.)


The letter A, when preceded by the G sound or hard C sound, usually becomes YA. (E.g., kyar/car; kya/care; kyap/cap, etc.) K is used instead of C here because C would produce a soft pronunciation of the letter (E.g., cyanide). (E.g., Gyal/gal, girl; gyap/gap; gyarden/garden, etc.)


The short O in Patois is pronounced exactly the same as A. (E.g., pot and hot indistinguishable from pat and hat, man pronounced like mon, etc.)


The diphthong OI is pronounced like the long I sound. (E.g., vice/voice; tai/toy)

Usually W intrudes between OI and the preceding B or P. (E.g., bwai/boy; ‘pwile/spoil, etc.) The diphthongs OU or OW, when pronounced as in “ouch,” are softened to long O sound. (E.g., coh/cow; hoh/how; noh/now; etc.)


Long E (-ay as in day) is usually pronounced as a diphthong IE (E.g., die/day; niem/name; etc.)

Long O (-ow as in blow) is sometimes pronounced as diphthong UO (E.g., nuo/know; stuon/stone; etc.)




The plural form of a noun is often implied or understood; the singular noun is used to indicate both singular and plural forms. (E.g., one foot, two foot/one foot, two feet; one teet, two teet/one tooth, two teeth; etc.)


When there is a clear need to indicate the third person plural form of a noun, the third person plural pronoun “dem” is used. (E.g., di man-dem/the men; gyal-dem/girls; etc.)


If not implied, possession is indicated with the preposition fi/for. (E.g., A fi di bwai/it is for the boy)




“The” is pronounced “di” and often abbreviated ‘i. (E.g., di bwai, or ‘i bwai/the boy) (Not to be confused with pronoun i’/it)


When ‘i follows a, the diphthong sound AI is produced. (E.g., eenai hohse/in the house)


The word a may either stand or be replaced by “one.” (E.g., one flim/a film)


Adverbs and Adjectives


The adverbial ending –LY is usually omitted, so the same word can serve as both an adjective and an adverb. (E.g., Di pickni quick, eeeh?/Isn’t the child quick?; Run quick noh/Run quickly won’t you)


Descriptive adjectives and adverbs are often doubled. (E.g., Di pickni too fraidi-fraidi/the child is to afraid).


The adverbs deh/there and ya/here are often used with the adverb so. (E.g., deh-so/right there; ya-so/right here)


Dan or ‘an/than are both commonly used for comparison. (E.g., Was’ bite hotta dan ants bite/Wasp bites are more painful than ant bites)




A can be used to mean to, at, in, of, etc.  (E.g., a tung/to town; a yaad/in the yard, at home; offa/off of; eena/in, into; paat ai lan’/part of the land; haf ai peer/half of the pear; etc.)


“Boht” is the common form of “about.”


“Fi” means “for,” or is used to indicate possession.  One must distinguish it from the verb fi/must, should.  (E.g., Yu fi gi mi fi yu money fii wata bill/You must give me your money for the water bill)


Fran or fram is used to indicate “from.” (E.g., Fran ya to deh/From here to there)


“Ina” or “eena” means in or into.  At the end of a sentence, “een” is used.  (E.g., Ina di hohse/In the house; Put i eenai box/ put it into the box; I’ gaan een/It has gone in)


“Ohta,” “hoht” means “out of,” “out.”

“Pon” means “on,” or “upon.”

“Puttin’ away” means “except.”

“Unda,” “unnannet,” and “neet” mean “under,” “underneath,” and “beneath.”

“Widohtn” means “without,” or “unless.”




                                    Singular                                 Plural


1st person                  mi, I/me or I                           wi/we or us


2nd person                 yu/you                         yu, uno/you, you all


3rd person                  im/he, she                             dem/they, them

                                         her, him, it

                                         shi/she, her

                                         i’, it, hit/it


Note: Rastafarians have their own entirely different pronoun system, using “I” in all persons of both tenses to emphasize unity (I-nity).


To form a possessive pronoun one must place “fi” before a personal pronoun (E.g., fi mi/mine; fi yu/yours; etc.) Often the “fi” is omitted altogether.


Demonstrative pronouns “this” and “that” are expressed using “dis” and “dat”


Interrogative pronouns are mostly the same as those in Standard English. (E.g., who, which, what (wa), when, and where (weh))




“Say,” also spelled “sey” or “seh,” follows verbs of telling, hearing, thinking, communicating, etc.  Their meanings are identical to “say” in English. Jamaicans use the word somewhat ambiguously as both a verb and conjunction. (E.g., Im tell wi say im bex/He told us that he is angry; Yu no tink say mi fi dwi/You don’t think that I should do it)




Patois has eliminated most forms of Standard English stem-changing verbs (E.g., go, went, gone; sing, sang, sung; etc.).  Usually, one form of a verb can be used to indicate all of the tenses (with use of preceding indicators).


Simple present                      im say                                     he says

            negative                     im no say/                            he doesn’t say

                                              im don’ say


Present progressive            im a say                                  he is saying

            negative                     im  naa say                           he is not saying 


Simple past                          im en say/                            he said

                                              im wen say

            negative                  im nen say                       he didn’t say


Past progressive                  im ena say/                    he was saying

                                                im wena say

            negative                  im nena say                           he was not saying


Future                                              im a go say/                      he will say

                                              im ao say/

                                              im o say/

                                              im wi say

            negative                  im im naa go say/            he is not going to say

                                              im nao say


Past future                           im ena go say/                             he was going to say

                                              Im enao say/

                                              im wena go say/

                                              im wenao say

            negative                  im nena go say/               he wasn’t going to say

                                              im nenao say


Conditional                            im wooda say/                           he would say

                                              im da say

            negative                  im neva wooda say         he wouldn’t say


Past conditional                    im wooda en say                   he would have said

            negative                  im neva wooda en say        he wouldn’t have said



Some verb tenses vary depending on where you are in Jamaica.  As the creolization process continues, some verb tenses are emerging that more closely resemble Standard English (E.g., mi did say/I said).


Auxiliary Verbs


The auxiliary verbs kyan/can; kooda/could have; shooda/should have; wooda/would have; mighta/might have; muss or mussi/must have; haffi/have to; and fi/should, must are commonly seen in Patois (Adams, 1991).







All of the information about concerning grammar and pronunciation (starting at Phonetic Peculiarities of Patois) taken from L. Emilie Adams’ “Undertanding Jamaican Patois.”

The creolization process, or emergence of a new culture as a result of the interbreeding, and cultural, lingual, and social mixing of (mainly) African slaves and their British masters, is responsible for this language of Patois.  Creolization is also responsible for the Standard Jamaican English spoken in Jamaica, and for the current state of cultural and social institutions.  The fact that Patois is generally unintelligible to English speakers, the continuous increase in globalization, and the relative dominance of English as the primary language of communication and doing business internationally incessantly apply a pressure on Jamaicans to become fluent in the language (Morris, 2009).  

As cultures tend to hang on to that which unifies them and distinguishes them from other cultures, Jamaicans hang on to Patois. For some reason it has been bedazzled linguists, anthropologists, sociologists, and other scholars for centuries; Trouillot defined it as the most studied and investigated creole language in the world (Trouillot, 2002). Although we cherish and wish hold on to our languages, one must admire the still-in-effect processes of creolization that constantly change the way we communicate with one another.








Works Cited

Adams, L. E. Understanding Jamaican Patois. LMH Ltd.


Craig, Dennis R. "Teaching Standard English to Nonstandard Speakers: Some Methodological issues." Journal of Negro Education 52: 65-74.

Justus, Joyce B. "Language and National Integration: The Jamaican Case." Ethnology 1 (1987): 39-51.

Morris, John. "Creole Cultures of Belize and the Caribbean." Galen University. Feb. 2009. Lecture.

Patrick, Peter L. “A Handbook of Varieties of English.” Jamaican Creole: Morphology and Syntax. Berlin, 2002.

Romberg, Raquel. "Revisiting Creolization." Swarthmore College. 2002. Visited 12/2/09.


Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. "Culture on the Edges: Carribean Creolization in Historical Context." From the Margins: Historical Anthropology and its features. 2002.

Wassink, Alicia B. "Historic Low Prestige and Seeds of Change: Attitudes Toward Jamaican Creole." Language in Society 28 (1999): 57-92. Print.