Analysis of most frequent version of English spoken in Jamaica and

By Juan Mason,2014-07-09 09:16
9 views 0
Analysis of most frequent version of English spoken in Jamaica and


     This study deals with the phonetics and phonology of Jamaican English. Jamaican English is a variety of English that is a part of a broad Creole family of the Caribbean area, sometimes also known as West Indies. To avoid misunderstanding, every time the term Jamaican English is used in the following text, I am referring to Jamaican Creole (some linguists tend to equate general Jamaican English with Jamaican English Standard). Jamaican English is the best known Caribbean dialect and since ?(t)he most populous of the West Indian English-speaking territories is

    1Jamaica in the Greater Antilles, with a population in excess of 2 million“ it is also

    the most common language of the area.

     Considering its history, which is never a good thing to neglect, linguists have

    2proved English-African origin of modern Jamaican English. Jamaican English is a

    direct descendant of a provisory slave means of communication classified as pidgin. Pidgin is originally a form of communication developed between groups of speakers of differing languages who, having no language in common base their mutual understanding on a highly simplified version of the language of one group, with considerable influence from the language of the other group. Therefore pidgin has originally no native speakers.

     Originally, the base for Jamaican pidgin was Portuguese. Due to the historical

    thfact of Portugal being a marine supremacy in 17 century, its fleet soon became a

    prominent slave provider for newly found colonies in the Caribbean area. West Africans, seized and carried away from their homeland, spent in many cases several weeks on sea in dark ship cells surrounded by their jailers and prisoners of different African tribes. Makeshift development must have started somewhere at this point when two seemingly incompatible languages merged. The real flourish of Jamaican language did not occur before the land of Jamaica in West Indies was claimed for the British Empire. Portuguese which was present in early forms of West Africans’

    pidgin disappeared shortly after the British shored the Caribbean islands. Today there are no remnants of Portuguese in ordinary Jamaican speech. According to Cassidy,

     1 Wells (1982): Accents of English. Vol. 3: Beyond the British Isles. Cambridge: CUP, p.560 2 See Lalla (1979), Devonish & Harry (2003), Rickford (1987).


    all examples of early Jamaican vocabulary surviving in original lexicon of farming,

    3irrigation or trade are of African or English origin.

     Africans turned into a traditional labour power and the time went on. Meanwhile, pidgin became established as the first language of the black community. ?This happens when children are brought up by parents who use a pidgin as their

    common language within the family, or … the pidgin is the only common language of

    4the adults with whom the child comes into contact.“ Since pidgin gained its first

    native speakers (i.e. the speakers who used the pidgin as their first-language) it started to be used for wider range of purposes than ever before. New vocabulary was coined and the language got more complex. This process is known as creolisation and its result is a Creole.

    th In 18 century the majority of white landholders, civil servants and tradesmen

    5were Irish Catholics and one third of the white population were Scottish. A

    significant number of young West Indians (second generation of white emigrants) were sent back to Britain to receive English education. Historians estimate that in th618 century this was true of about three-quarters of the land-proprietors’ sons. The

    exposure to Irish and Scottish English among black population who was in everyday contact with white Europeans rose accordingly. Former inhabitants of Africa kept steadily acquiring and nativizing the vernacular and dialectal British Englishes. This exposure to various English dialects and as well the English standard (RP) lead to various local English varieties existing along with each other. Jamaican (Creole) English is now what linguists call the creole speech continuum or simply the continuum, meaning that the variety of the language closest to the standard language (the acrolect) co-exists alongside with intermediate varieties (collectively referred to

    7as the mesolect) and the most different out-of-town varieties (known as the basilect).

    This range of various co-existing English varieties in this area, also known as Jamaican Creole Speech Continuum, is referred to by Jamaicans themselves as Patois

    8or Patwa. This term, however, has never been adopted by the linguistic community.

     Yet the shaping of modern Jamaican English(es) was not completed during the era of British rule. A very significant period in present history of Jamaican

     3 Cassidy (1984), p.24-26 4 Wells (1982), p.562 5 See Purcell (1937) and Pitman (1970) 6 Lalla (1979), p.37-51 7 Terminology gets a little complicated at this point, see Index of Terms (Tab.7.1 in last chapter). 8 Devonish & Harry (2004), 441.


    English started in 1960’s when Jamaica gained independence from the United Kingdom and became a fully independent by leaving the Federation of West Indies in 1962. In late 60s and early 70s Rastafari movement and Reggae music promotion reached its peak. These phenomena were primarily aiming inward, giving some unprecedented pride to West Indians who used to feel about their (broken) English as something they used but were ashamed of. Rastafari movement, or Rastafarianism, variously defined as a religion or as a political movement, developed its own kind of communication Rastafarian speech is probably best described as a variety of

    9 Reggae music, which is Jamaican Creole with special lexis and morphology.

    undeniably connected with Rastafarianism, has also contributed to Jamaican English development. Besides, the role that reggae music played in promoting Creole among Carribean population and later even popularising it on the global scale can never be accented enough.

     Since the 70’s the positive approach to the mother language has increased. It

    is clearly recognisable among the young generations of Jamaicans. Jamaican youngsters of today tend to use Jamaican Creole more than the generations of the

    thfirst half of the 20 century when they express themselves in their everyday

    communication. Jamaican English is being used on air on popular radio stations and TV shows around the world more often than a few decades ago, more movies with Jamaican Creole have been recently shot and more likely than ever before an average internet user may run into Jamaican language used on a web blog, chat room or a plain site.

     On the other hand the globalisation has taken its toll in modern times, due

    to Jamaica's proximity to the United States and the resulting close economic and cultural ties and high rates of migration (plus the ubiquity of American entertainment products and aggressive advertising and promotion) the influence of American English has been steadily increasing and have already had a deep impact on Jamaican English.

     9 Sebba (1993), 6.


    1.1. STANDARD vs. CREOLE

     Since modern Jamaican English consists of more than a single dialect, there is a choice to be made as to which one should be used for the proper study material. Linguists referring to Jamaican Creole Speech Continuum distinguish at least four different dialects the basilect, the higher and the lower mesolect and the acrolect (for differences among these varieties, see Tab.1.2.1.) Nevertheless, the nature of any of these four dialects is disputable. They serve only as virtual constructs to depict extremes within the span of the Continuum. There is actually no accurate boundary to be found in present language reality of Jamaica no dialect can be clearly

    separated from the other. Still, all four of the above mentioned models show differing rate of divergence from the Standard and the features unique for a particular variety. However, the goal of my thesis is not commenting on the speculative nature of language continua and unclear boundaries of its formants. The goal is to find prominent phonological features of Jamaican English and demonstrating them on the most representative Jamaican variety.

     Let us take a closer look at the varieties. Sociolinguistically speaking, a basilect is always the lowest variety of the language it is spoken mostly in rural

    areas and by uneducated inhabitants of city suburbs. An acrolect, which lies at the opposite end of the scale, is the most posh variety and a mesolect is somewhere between the crudest Creole basilect speech and this “perfect“ Jamaican Standard

    10English (acrolect). A mesolect is closer to an acrolect rather than a basilect because of the similarity of their speakers both acrolect and mesolect are most likely to be

    spoken by inhabitants of urban areas and their neighbourhoods. Mesolect tends to abandon most of its African syntax and adopts its English counterpart instead. In

    general, there is a gradual tendency of (especially higher varieties of) mesolect to

    11approximate the higher forms of the Continuum.

     10 Irvine (1994), p.55-78. 11 Irvine (1994), p.62


    Ai hav twelv chiljren wit him, tuu dayd. Kieti waan wan neda buk. Ten touzn yirz ago dem did penichriet aal dem ting. Ii waan a piis a Tab.1.2.1. A simple illustrative table of English-speaking West Indies Continuum: hais u bai.Wa di inglish stuor did niem agen? Sapuoz man ben get op an kyatch yu hin de? Ef dem neva bring op dis piis man, plenti

     piipl wuda ded. Jos bikaaz evribadi wena go luk pan fi Patsi uon. Mi ben de go dong de. Im woz a baaba ya nuo, im chrim and im sel

    ais kriim. Im se wan taim i yuustu sari fi dem, bot im duon sari fi dem agen.Yuu di nuo ya niem wuda go kaal? Mi wi go de sonde, but

    mi a go go a tong nou.


    Tab.1.2.2. A sample of basilectal Jamaican English (various sources) for consideration:

    1.2. WHY MESOLECT?

     Basilectal and lower-mesolectal West Indian creole has many syntactic and morphological features differing sharply from anything found in traditional English varieties across the UK (see Tab.1.2.2.). The other extreme is the local standard which bears only a slight change in few phonological aspects if compared with any other standard in English-speaking world. The speech studied in this thesis is therefore not the broadest creole you can find in the countryside and mountainous regions of Jamaica, nor is it the upper-class acrolect (Jamaican Standard English) influenced extremely by British RP, which is more likely to be understood by strangers.

     The speech data examined in this study comes from a mid-class

    neighborhood in Kingston, Jamaica and represents a usual form of Jamaican language. These recordings should form (out of the available data) a reliable sample of middle and lower-class urban speech of Jamaican English. I chose to work on mesolectal Jamaican simply because it is quite far from the standard English spoken in offices and legal institutions, instead this middle-class speech is more natural, unmonitored, informal, and dialectical. Mesolect avoids extreme features of both “broad Creole“ basilect and “near RP“ acrolect that is why I consider mesolect the

    most suitable language variety for a phonological analysis.

     Thus for sake of convenience every time I use term Jamaican English (or JE) later on in this study I will always be referring to the mesolectal variety of West Indies Creole.


     English speech differs all around the world, mainly because of the different history development of the local English. Such a different kind of English is called the (local) English Variety, or, popularly the dialect. Phonological differences between various dialects concern differences in phoneme inventory (the number of phonemes employed in a particular dialect), different phonological rules (most predictable speech patterns executed by a speaker of a particular dialect) and differences in sound distribution and phoneme realization.

     As a solid base for the analysis, the research data by Irvine (1994), Wells (1982) and especially Patrick (1999, 2003, 2004) will be used. Checking and


    demonstrating language phenomena is possible thanks to the recorded set of JE samples. For tracing historic backgrounds of current language patterns I will consult works of Lalla (1979, 1983). Analyses of each separate phonological features, at last put together, eventually draws a demonstrative image of the dialect.

     Of course, linguists use diverse methods and their prospects on same problem sometimes vary. For instance if we take Wells: “(t)he demography of the West Indies

    is as complicated as its linguistic history. One fact, though, is obvious: that this area of the native-English-speaking world is the only one which is overwhelmingly black in its ethnic affiliation. There are black minorities in the United States, in England, and elsewhere; but it is only in the Caribbean territories that black people constitute

    12 At this point, there the great majority of speakers of English as a first language.”

    would be no objections on validity of the statement. The question is if it is the same about the statement’s implications. Which features of Jamaican English can be

    undoubtedly taken for exclusively Jamaican and which are in general marks of Black English? Many various opinions have been gathered and experts are simply unable to come to a conclusion accepted by everybody.

     Although the line can not be drawn, there still is a universal agreement on majority of the subject matter. In cases where more options are possible I decided to go with Wells and Patrick. Their research in the field of synchronic Jamaican English is a long-lasting effort that has rewarded them with academic credit.

    2. VOWELS

     In this chapter, I will first describe vowels of Standard English. Later on I will discuss and compare various drafts of JE vowel system focusing on phonemic inventory. Next phase is listing of phoneme distribution differences and last but not least come phonological rules.


     Dialects differ, if we speak only for vowels, in the tongue position (its body’s height, the frontness or backness of its tip) or in the degree of lip rounding. It is

    common for phoneticians to compare vowels employed by speakers of a particular dialect with those vowels employed by speakers of the standard British English (RP).

     12 Wells (1982), p.561


     All vowels employed within one particular English-speaking community can be put down into a standardised chart. This chart is usually a rectangular figure representing the position of the tongue body (front, central, back) on the horizontal axis and the position of the tongue tip on the vertical axis (high, middle, low). Where symbols on the chart appear in pairs, the one to the right represent a rounded vowel (rounded, unrounded vowel results of the additional lip rounding).

     The figure that follows is the General Vowel Chart (Fig. 2.1.1.) which sums up all possible vowels (taking in account only those languages making use of the egressive pulmonic airstream while voicing). The symbols presented inside the figure are therefore representatives of all vowels that human-beings can possibly produce.

     Fig.2.1.1. General Vowel Chart (in courtesy of Ladefoged, 1993):

     Such a diagram, however, operates with extensive number of characters which is ineffective, if not confusing, for a linguist focused on only a single language or a dialect. That is why a standardised chart of each language differs from charts of its varieties (dialects). Diagrams simply include only those vowels which are in actual use in a particular language or its variety. This definition leads us to the next chart presented in this chapter. It is a chart of the British Standard English, so-called RP Vowel Chart (Fig.2.1.2.):


    Fig.2.1.2. RP Vowel Chart (in courtesy of Ladefoged, 1993):


     In Standard English, either RP or GA, it is differences of vowel quality (lax/tense, tongue height) and vowel quantity (vowel length) that determinate the total number of phonemes. On the contrary, JE is less concerned with vowel length. Furthermore, phonemic inventory is considerably simplified due to the creole roots of the language. Length distinction appears to be getting more distinctive in the modern period of JE, but it still has not achieved wider phonological importance. Vowel quantity is simply not a determining element for phonemic distinction in Jamaican English. This is unsurprising as it is a well-known feature of all Africa-based dialects that vowel length and vowel quality are independent of each other. “Many instances of length in modern JE can be traced to a V + /(/ source, where /(/

    13has been lost with compensatory lengthening (RP „more‟ -> JE „mo‟). “

     Languages that emerged from pidgins have their phoneme inventory reduced as phonemic contrasts that are not common to the language start to dwindle when not

    14used. This must be how JE vowel system developed. The quality distinctions between high and lower high front /?;;/ or high and lower high back /,;,/ are not

    always maintained and further on, JE, same as other creole languages and a vast

     13 Lalla (1983), p.122 14 Hall (1966), p. 27-31


     // present number of West African languages, has only one a-sound. There is onlyin JE vowel chart. The other significant feature is the absence of central or unstressed vowels /, ;;;/, apart from the fact that the mid and low vowels are more centralised than their RP counterparts.

     There is a theory behind these language symptoms. According to Hall (1966) and Lalla (1983), a few phases of vowel change have taken place during JE development. Most likely there were three changes under way during creolisation of the pidgin.

     The first and the second phase reduced the whole system. In the first phase, the vowel length was removed; during the second phase a merging of vowels must have taken place to reduce quality distinctions like tense/lax and high/lower high. Nobody can be sure of the real nature of this process, but perhaps it went along the following scheme:

    Fig.2.2. Vowel Reduction scheme as suggested by Lalla (1983):

    The third phase was the expansional one. In this historic phase gained the JE vowel system lengthening and diphthongisation. For example simple lower high front vowel /;/ expanded to /;;/ which later in some cases diphthongised to /;;/.

     There have been other phases under way since then. These next steps in vowel development completed diphthongisation and lengthening of JE vowels.


Report this document

For any questions or suggestions please email