Jamaican Creole

Jamaican Creole has its origins in the languages introduced to the Caribbean and West Indes during the years of colonisation and slavery. It was traditionally the subject of derision due to its roots in oppressed cultures, but more recently opinion towards it has changed for the better, with linguists championing it for its unique syntactical and phonological properties and for its continuing social, historical and political significance. There is a huge amount of interest in this area of linguistics and this essay attempts to provide some insight into the symptoms of Jamaican Creole with recourse to the wealth of research already conducted.
In this case the origin of Jamaican Creole (JC) may begun to be investigated through consideration of the meaning implicit behind the words ‘superstrate’ and ‘substrate’. A dictionary definition of the term gives the former as: ‘the language of a later invading people that is imposed on an indigenous population and contributes features to their language’. It gives the latter as: ‘an indigenous language that contributes features to the language of an invading people who impose their language on the indigenous population.’  Thus we have the two terms ‘invading people’ and ‘indigenous population’ and they are useful in establishing the colonial context in which JC first came about. The definitions in this instance are imperfect ones however, as it ought to be noted that the indigenous population of Jamaica, or Xaymaca as these people named it, had been exterminated and displaced in the mid 1600s with the arrival of the ‘conquistadores’ of Europe. Therefore the language referred to as ‘substrate’ in this instance is actually an amalgamation of imported tongues; those spoken by the multitudes of slaves transferred across from Africa. As Donald Winford informs us, the contact languages known as ‘creoles’ ‘were created by slaves and other subordinated groups who fashioned materials from the colonial languages and their own mother tongues into new media of communication’ (2003, p. 304). It is important to be aware that although Creole was created by slaves - cobbled together purely as a means of basic communication - what we now refer to as JC has developed into a mother-tongue (L1) in its own right, absorbing new linguistic and phonological features as second and third generations have grown up speaking it. Winford goes on to state, ‘the newcomers, both European and African, came together in a social, cultural and linguistic vacuum, into which each group introduced some of its cultural traditions’ (p. 310). It is easy to forget that culture is always present, it is not merely a relic of the past preserved in museums, and it is important to bear this in mind when speaking about JC in the present day.
Perhaps the most unusual syntactical and grammatical difference between Creole and superstrate languages is the formers use of pre-verbal markers to establish tense, mood and aspect, commonly known as TMA. Using Winford’s table as a reference (p. 325) it is possible to explore instances of this through analysis of written dialogue. For instance, JC uses ‘(b)en’ before a verb if describing something which happened in the past: mi en nuo se im wudn kom = “I knew that he would not come” . It uses ‘wi’ to express the future: mi wi go de Sonde = “I’ll go there on Sunday” . Creole does the same thing – places markers before the verb - where Standard English would use past and present participles with their inflectional endings: (/di gyal dem de guo / the girls are going) (Le Page, P. 141). It is worth at this point noting a phonological anomaly that is widespread in the Creoles, whereby the voiced fricative ‘th’ is substituted by ‘d’, as in the example above: them becomes dem. It is interesting that pre-verbal markers in JC also appear to be optional, as Peter L. Patrick in his study on the urban manifestation of the tongue confirms: ‘the expression of past-reference in JC is not obligatory, i.e., there are grammatical utterances that are systematically ambiguous as to time reference.’ (1999, p. 169). This is evident in the practice of storytelling, a much valued source area for all linguists. Memorized stories offer a preserved oral record of the speech-patterns of the past, and this is no less true for creoles. Once it has been established that a tale is set in the past JC allows for it to then be told in the present tense, creating a greater sense of immediacy for the listener. The second half of R. B. Le Page’s book Creole Language Studies is devoted to transcripts of Anancy stories recited by an elderly speaker of basilectal JC. Within these pages the detail and action of events is largely expressed in the present tense, after a cursory nod by the narrator to the fact that he is indeed talking about something that happened in the past.
‘nou, der iz a ‘neks ‘touri, ‘bout, ‘nat di ‘siem uol ‘wich, but a ‘uol ‘wich ‘al di siem. Nou ‘der ‘waz a ‘yon ‘man, ‘wants. Fi-‘him ‘mada ‘waz a ‘blain ‘wuman, ‘fren wid a ‘neks ‘wuman, wich ‘shii, iz ‘def. ‘suo dis ‘yon ‘fla ‘iz a uol ‘wich.
Now there is a next story, about not the same old woman but about a old witch all the same. Now there was a young man once. His mother, his mother was a blind woman. And that blind woman was friends with a next woman which she is deaf. So this young fellow is a old witch.
Though in this instance there is no record of pre-verbal markers, instead versions of the copula are used: ‘waz’ and ‘iz’, and the same end is achieved: we can see how Rowe begins speaking in the past before seamlessly sliding into the present tense.
There is certainly a tendency on the part of scholars in the field towards believing that ‘a fixed (T-M-A) ordering of pre-verbal markers were definitive of creoles’ (Winford, p. 326). The Creolist and ethnologist Beryl Loftman Bailey informs us that many English-based Creoles, such as Sranan from South America, Gullah from the islands off South Carolina and Krio from Africa’s Sierra Leone, are similar to French Creoles, ‘as well as the Louisiana Creole in New Orleans (...) the Hispanic-based Creole of Curacao’ and the ‘Dutch-based Creole of the Virgin Islands’ (1966, p. 6). However Bailey also states ‘although these languages all bear resemblances which can hardly be coincidental, their syntax cannot be said to be Portuguese, nor Dutch, nor English, nor French on the one hand, nor West African on the other’ (p. 6). Perhaps she was expecting to be able to draw clear linguistic relationships between the superstrate and its respective Creole fifedom, but such a reductionist attempt to explain the origins of Creole is not something to be proud of and should not in fact be attempted. It is a type of neo-colonialism that the languages of Western Europe should claim authorship of so fluid and collaborative a language-group as Creole.
For one thing Creole is still developing and enveloping. In Patrick’s study on the urbanization of JC he contextualises it as having many varieties within itself; discussing the phonological and lexical differences between the old and the young, the poor and the affluent, the urban and the rural.  
After Emancipation in 1838, movement away from plantation life into isolated interior villages removed one source of contact with standard varieties and contributed to the maintenance and vitality of basilectal and mesolectal Jamaican Creole. (p. 128)
From a lexical point of view all the Creoles certainly have an appetite for assimilating new words. They frequently possess compound adjectives that are both descriptive and metaphorical as Baugh writes in A History of the English Language. He draws a link between ‘strong-eye’ and the Twi phrase n’ani ye den meaning ‘self-willed’, and also connects kakanabu meaning ‘foolishness’ to the Cockney figure of speech, a ‘cock-and-bull’ story. It seems that JC does not go in for favouritism, absorbing and preserving lexical items from both superstrate and substrate sources. This ability to assimilate freely from numerous sources is monitored however by what Baugh calls a ‘hierarchy of linguistic features’ which are ‘associated with various points on the continuum’ (2002, p. 333). These various points refer to the strains of Creole, ranging from the radical basilectal through the mesolect to the acrolect (the most standard form). Patrick points out that the use of TMA particles, as discussed above, vary not only across creoles but also largely within the generations (p. 169), and this is likely to be true of the lexis as well. As Le Page asserts,
Most Jamaicans are bidialectal; domestic servants, for example, will speak one language to their employers and a different one among themselves. If the occasion is relatively formal or if the speaker rises to middle-class status, different structural features appear, including phonemic contrasts such as rat-rot, face-fierce, and bud-bird, lacking in informal lower-class speech. (p. 135)
This is recognisable in other dialectal regions of the world, for instance in the Scots dialect spoken in the Scottish Highlands and the ease in which a Scots speaker can switch into Standard English. And it is also a common practice in most languages to consider who you are addressing before you open your mouth. Le Page’s comments suggest the awareness within creole speaking communities of the significance of their words. Certainly language has been an important tool in establishing identity for modern Jamaicans, as can be seen in the bold creole poetry of Louise Bennett and Benjamin Zephaniah. In doing so it discredits this idea of the ‘impoverishment’ of creole, as posited by Baugh (p. 332).
It is intriguing to note that ‘English has shown a marked tendency to go outside its own linguistic resources and borrow from other languages’ (Baugh, p. 12) as it would appear that JC shows a remarkably similar tendency. Even though many lexical items from English have been absorbed into JC there are anomalies in the grammar that reveal large areas where the languages seem incompatible. An example is in ‘serial verb construction (which) seems to analyse the section expressed in the English verb by breaking it down into its sequential parts.’ (Fields, 1995, p. 103). It is interesting to note that it is JC that requires greater detail and explanation of a verb, unsatisfied to leave ambiguity:
Two well known examples from Jamaican Creole are carry go and bring come, sometimes used together as carry go bring come. It almost seems as though the influence from the African substrate dictates that a verb should only express one action (Fields, 1995, p.103).
This reveals a desire for clarity within the collective psyche of JC speakers which is odd given their laziness in establishing the time-reference of a given situation. Baugh provides us with a good example of this need for precision in the English sentence “John went to Honolulu to see Mary” which ‘does not specify whether John actually saw Mary.’ (Baugh, 2002, p. 333).  In Creole the difference between the completed action – ‘John bin go Honolulu go see Mary’ – and the incomplete action – ‘John bin go Honolulu for see Mary’ - must be established. Therefore, where JC does not parallel English, for instance in the latter’s insistence on inflection, it has requisites of its own which Standard English lacks. Le Page supports this apparent inconsistency present along the Creole continuum, as he says, ‘Jamaican idolects range (...) from the speech of the English expatriates to the ‘bush talk’ of the isolated villages’ (p. 135).
Baugh describes pidgin as a ‘simplified language used for communication between speakers of different languages, typically (...) for trading purposes’ and goes on to distinguish it from Creole:
If the simplified language is then learned as a first language by a new generation of speakers and its structures and vocabulary are expanded to serve the needs of its community of speakers, it is known as a creole (123).
Therefore the Creoles that are spoken today across the globe are all offshoots of a mother-tongue that encompasses and includes, given the fact that its speakers live far and wide; on coastlines, in cities and in rural settings. All are still being influenced linguistically by their social and geographical situation. We can compare this to the situation of the children and grandchildren of immigrants to the UK, who not only speak fluent Standard English but also a version of their parents and grandparents native tongues. The difference between an immigrant from southern Asia – India, Pakistan and Bangladesh for instance - is that they come speaking what Baugh would describe as an already ‘established language’ (p. 333). They then bring up their children using their L1, at the same time that the child is learning the system of speech of their country of birth: another L1. Bilingual from birth these children are at a distinct advantage when it comes to accessing the subtleties of intonation and meaning in their two mother-tongues, something which older language learners rarely achieve fully. Creole is a powerful example of this as first generation speakers - for instance those enslaved people made to work on the plantations - spoke a limited pidgin, adequate for offering information and obeying orders and lacking in grammatical complexity and lexical variety.
Generative grammarians, such as Noamh Chomsky:
have aimed to explain how language can be acquired at all, given the poverty of the stimulus. “How can we know so much on the basis of so little experience?” they ask. The answer is that a knowledge of linguistic universals is part of the innate structure of the human brain (Baugh, p. 334)
It is children who will change the world, as is oft remarked, and this is no less true when it comes to the growth of language. The creators of Creole were the second and third generations of Jamaicans who fashioned it from the pidgin of their parents and presumably from the linguistic influences all around them, in the form of substrates and superstrates. The languages of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have not had to scramble from birth as limited trade languages into comprehensive and fluid tongues in their own right, which is what all Creoles have had to do. While Jamaican Creole may have grown from a pidgin, it did precisely that: it grew, just as its first native speakers grew. The following generations of Jamaicans spoke this language and it necessarily had to undergo change, expansion and adaptation in order to meet their needs. From its basic form as a mode of communication between traders and displaced peoples, JC has become a language group in its own right, with its generous continuum of Creole variants and its continual growth in the modern age.
It is now generally accepted by linguists in the field that the ‘“creole hypothesis” – the idea of a continuum of Creole forms - has a lot to do with the formation of “street speech”’, which is present in western metropolises and spoken by third generation JC speakers (Baugh, p. 383). He comments on the controversy during the 1960s ‘on the extent to which linguistic features could be traced either to British English or to creole origins.’ There was a rush to try to “discover” where JC had come from. It was ‘recognised that the migrations of African Americans from the rural South to the cities of the North during the past century brought a dialect with distinctly Southern features to New York, Chicago, Detroit, and other cities’. These dialects naturally mingled and merged and ‘continued to be learnt by successive generations’.
Baugh also goes on to state, ‘The occurrence of English forms and constraints in JC is partial but not random, conventionalised rather than improvised’ (p. 150) arguing the case for the intention behind Creole, and promoting the idea that it belongs to its speakers. There is a traditional view of Creole as a language that has been forced into being, and often falls short of allowing it autonomy. Yet an analysis into just one of its many varieties discredits this. JC has acquired a name for itself and recognition that it is its own tongue, formed from others but unlike any that has come before it. Its grammar breaks rules; it does not conform to its supposed superstrate parent language, but uses its own systems of establishing tense, mood and aspect. It also does not step in time to its substrate influences. As Holm states, not all Creoles exhibit the same markers, ‘There is no marker in JC which is exclusively associated with habitual aspect. It thus differs from other CE varieties like Guyanese, which uses doz primarily but also a.’ (2007, p. 131). It changes depending on its situation: ‘Progressive aspect markers are preverbal (...) Da and de are characteristic of western Jamaica (De Camp 1971), and are also more rural’  (2007, p. 130). Like a disobedient child it rampages around, paying attention to some rules and disregarding others.
Linguists can no longer speculate without evidence that JC variation and the mesolect are grammarless, the spontaneous result of contemporary code-switching or fossilized learning of English, though these undoubtedly played a role earlier (p. 150).
It is almost as though Creolisation survived as a form of protest against colonisation and brutality. By retaining an imperfect linguistic system and building new grammatical and syntactical rules upon it, speakers of Creole maintained their own world, preserved older tongues that were threatened with extinction and adapted others that were being forced upon them. In this way it can be argued that, while JC is certainly a speech form in its own right it is also on the Creole continuum. It is a development from pidgin, it bears similarities with its variants – for instance in the universal appearance of TMA and SVO - and therefore it is still part of a collective voice that refuses to behave like any of the languages from which it has sprung.   

Bailey, Beryl Loftman. (1966) Jamaican Creole Syntax: A Transformational Approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Baugh, Albert C. & Thomas Cable. (2002) A History of the English Language. London: Routledge.

Bickerton, Derek. (1981) Roots of Language. Karoma Publishers Inc: Ann Arbor.

Fields, Linda. “Early Bajan: Creole or Non-Creole?”. (1995) In Jacques Arends (Ed) The Early Stages of Creolization. John Benjamins Publishing Company: Amsterdam/Philadelphia. (pp. 89-111)

Holm, John & Peter L. Patrick (Eds). (2001) Comparative Creole Syntax. Battlebridge Publications: United Kingdom & Sri Lanka.

Holm, John. Pidgins and Creoles. (1989) Vol II Reference Survey. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Le Page, R.B. (1960) Creole Language Studies. Macmillan: London.

Patrick, Peter L. (1999) Urban Jamaican Creole: Variation in the Mesolect. John Benjamins Publishing Company: Amsterdam/Philadelphia.

Winford, Donald. (2003) An Introduction to Contact Linguistics. Blackwell Publishing: Oxford.