Broken English? – The Case of Jamaican Creole

Between 1066 and 1362, French was the official language of the England. English was viewed as an inferior vulgar hybridised Creole of Anglo-Saxon, Jutish, and Danish dialects. (Incidentally, Norman French itself could be described as a vulgar hybridised Creole of Gaulish, Latin, Norse, and Frankish dialects). Obviously, that opinion has changed, and in view of the humble origins of English it might be expected that English be understanding and supportive of its own dialects and Creoles.

For many centuries, in Jamaica itself, English has been the prestige form, the sought after standard, whereas Jamaican Creole has been viewed as an inferior way of speaking; as a vulgar hybridised Creole of English, various West African dialects, and others. (Notice the emboldened words.)

There are many features of Jamaican Creole, which mark it out as distinct from Standard English. For example, a recent email that I received read, “Wat ah way you know nuff people eh.” Most people who speak English as their first language would not understand that as a spoken phrase even if they could grasp its meaning from its written form.

First, I’m going to present the pronominal systems of both English and Jamaican Creole and examine the strengths and weaknesses of both systems, then, I’m going to briefly discuss plural marking in both languages. Next, I will discuss the interesting origin of certain Jamaican Creole words and finally, i will discuss the need for standardisation in Jamaican Creole if it is ever to become an officially recognised language.

The pronominal system

The pronominal system of SE has a four-way distinction of person, number, case, and gender. Compared to Jamaican Creole there are a lot of differences.

Singular Nominative Singular Accusative Singular Possessive Plural Nominative Plural Accusative Plural Possessive
1st Person I me my we us our
2nd Person you you your you you your
3rd Person he/she him/her his/her they them their
it it its

Standard English still holds to the obsolete indicators of case, nominative and accusative (basically subject and object) even though in English case is usually determined by position. eg. “Her hit he” is unacceptable in Modern English. So, why the need to distinguish between ‘he’ and ‘him’? The reason is because in Old English, case really mattered. “Her hit he” would still be understandable as “he hit her” simply because the nominative ‘he’ or ‘she’, no matter its position was always the subject or Agent of the sentence, whereas the accusative ‘him’ or ‘her’, was always the direct object or Theme.

Singular Singular Possessive Plural Plural Possessive
1st Person mi fi-mi wi fi-wi
2nd Person yu fi-yu unu fi-unu
3rd Person im fi-im dem fi-dem
im/it fi-im

As we can see, this is not the situation in Jamaican Creole. Case is always demonstrated by position. Any pronoun before the verb is the subject, and after the verb it is either the direct or indirect object. Other features to note are the lack of gender and absence of nominative and accusative case forms.

Also lacking in Jamaican Creole are possessive pronouns like my, your, his, her, its, our, their. To demonstrate possession, Jamaican Creole either has the simple pronoun directly in front of a noun, (for example ‘my book’ would be ‘mi buk’), or adds the prefix fi-, (as in ‘fi-mi buk’ also meaning ‘my book’).

Plural Marking

Plural marking in Standard English is a hodgepodge of different forms borrowed and assimilated from many languages. The original Old English way of making plurals was either the addition of -n or -en or the changing of the vowel sound, as it is for Modern German. Those original Old English plural markers survive in a few Modern English words. For example child/children, man/men, ox/oxen, foot/feet. The Norman French way of making plurals was to add an -s, -es or an -x. Only the first two forms were borrowed into English at first, producing forms like hand/hands, eye/eyes, bus/buses. Recently the -x ending had been borrowed for words like bureau/bureaux, adieu/adieux, chateau/chateaux, but it is pronounced as if the x were an s.

During the renaissance, Classical Latin and Classical Greek became fashionable, and although being extinct languages, they added a great deal both to the grammar and vocabulary of the English language, particularly in the fields of science and invention. Plurals produced at this period of time includedatum/data, octopus/octopi, medium/media, index/indices, helix/helices, matrix/matrices. These plural forms cause the most confusion not just to foreign speakers but also to a lot of people who speak English as their first language.

Plural marking in Jamaican Creole is much more logical and easier to learn. In fact Jamaican Creole behaves like Japanese for the most part in that it does not generally mark the plural of nouns. To indicate plurality, animate nouns (and sometimes other nouns to be stressed) are followed by the suffix -dem. This produces structures such as ‘di uman-dem’ or ‘di pikni-dem’ meaning ‘the women’ and ‘the children’ respectively. We can see this feature creeping into slang in England in the expression “man-dem”.

Tracing roots of Jamaican Creole

The unique vocabulary and grammar of Jamaican Creole did not just simply spring up as an easy way for plantation slaves from different tribes to talk to one another. Many words, phrases, and structures have an interesting etymology. (Etymology is a linguistic term for the history of the development of a word).

In Middle English, there was a distinction between singular ‘thou’, and plural ‘you’. This distinction has been almost completely erased apart from in some North Yorkshire dialects where the singular form‘tha’ is still used. E.g. tha’s reight welcome ‘ere means ‘you are very welcome here’. In some English dialects an attempt has even been made to replace the missing pronoun. A common form in London is ‘you-lot’. In American English ‘you-guys’  is widespread. In Scouser (a dialect found in Liverpool) ‘youse’ is used, and a friend tells me that his aunt in central Illinois also uses  ‘youse’ as well as ‘youse guys’, which may reflect the immigration pattern of the original settlers in that part of the United States.

In Jamaican Creole, the pronoun ‘oonu’ is found and this is similar to the form it has in modern Igbo (spoken in Nigeria) which was the most likely donor language. Forms of the pronoun (such as uno, unu, unoo) can be found in widely scattered parts of Africa in the Nubian and Nilotic language families and even as far as the Negrito languages of Malaysia. The word ‘seh’ as in ‘im tel mi seh…’ (he told me that…) has similar origins in Igbo!

Another interesting word commonly used is ‘pikni’, meaning ‘child’. The word was borrowed originally form Portuguese ‘picaninni’. Prior to British dominance, it was used by Portuguese masters to refer to black slaves, who picked up the word and began using it to refer to their own children. In Jamaica today, despite its innocent original meaning (child), it has acquired a pejorative connotation because of its history in Jamaica.

Two more interesting words that have spread across the English speaking world, but have their origins in Jamaica, are ‘buddy’ and ‘cuss’. These was a mispronunciations of ‘brother’ and ‘curse’ respectively. The first recorded use of ‘buddy’ was in 1850; whereas the word ‘cuss’ is a word that has entered our vocabulary only since the late 1940s. The difference in age of these terms shows how much influence Jamaican Creole has had on the English speaking world, The word ‘buddy’ is even found in the Oxford English Dictionary and ‘cuss’ is used so much among the younger generation in particular, that it is only a matter of time before it too is added to the OED. in view of the popularity of fashionable culture and music forms that have their origin in Jamaica Jamaican Creole is likely to continue to have considerable influence of English as a global language, but should it be classed as a dialect of English or should it have official recognition as a language in its own right?

Language Standardisation.

There are more salient differences between Jamaican Creole and English than there are between Swedish and Norwegian, yet the latter are classed as two separate distinct languages. Swedish and Norwegian people have almost no difficulty understanding one another, whereas some Englishmen will not have a clue what a Jamaican is saying. Similar cases are Czech and Slovakian, and Punjabi and Urdu, of which the spoken form is the same but only the written form is different.

Many people who have stated that saying ‘mi de a di paak’ as opposed to ‘I am in the park’, sounds childish, are completely ignorant of the fact that ‘mi/me’ is a common indigenous Niger-Kongo form of the first person pronoun. I would have been easy for early Jamaicans learning this strange alian language, to continue using ‘mi’ in that position rather than switching to ‘I’. Also the English at that time didn’t exactly have schools and colleges to teach their slaves the ‘proper’ way of forming the first person singular nominative pronoun.


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