Jamaican English, which includes Jamaican Standard English, is a variety of English spoken in Jamaica. Like Canadian English (also part of the broad North American English classification), it resembles parts of both British English and American English dialects, but uniquely has many aspects of Irish intonation. Typically, it uses the same spellings as found in British English.
Although the distinction between the two is best described as a continuum rather than a solid line, it is not to be confused with Jamaican Patois, also known as Jamaican or Jamaican Creole.
Jamaican Standard English is a variety of International Standard English (see English English). Since the mid-20th century, Jamaica has increasingly developed stronger social and economic ties with the United States and the increasing popularity of U.S. cultural offerings, including film, music, and televised dramas and comedies, exposure to American English has been increasing steadily.
Although Jamaica is closer to the United States, Jamaica was colonized by the British until 1962. Therefore, Jamaicans follow the British grammar, and British English is taught in school.
Recent American influence is apparent in the lexicon (babies sleep in "cribs" and wear "diapers" or "pampers"; some people live in "apartments" or "townhouses", for example). Generally, older vocabulary tends to be British (babies wear "nappies", not "diapers"; cars have "bonnets" and "windscreens"; children study "maths", use "rubbers" to erase their mistakes and wish they were on "holiday"), while newer phenomena are typically "imported" together with their American names.
The American term "trunk" is almost universally used instead of the British term "boot" on cars, while the engine covering is always referred to by the British term "bonnet" (as elsewhere throughout the English-official Caribbean). This is probably because the American term, "hood", is used in Jamaica as a vulgar slang for penis (but not elsewhere in the Caribbean).
Jamaican Standard English uses many words also used in Jamaican Patois, such as "duppy" for "ghost"; "vendah" for "informal vendor/hawker"; and some terms for Jamaican foods, like "ackee", "callaloo", "guinep", and "bammy".
Jamaican Standard English pronunciation, while it differs greatly from Jamaican Patois pronunciation, is nevertheless recognizably Caribbean. Features include the characteristic pronunciation of the diphthong in words like "cow", which is more closed and rounded than in Received Pronunciation or General American; the pronunciation of the strut vowel /ʌ/ (again, more closed than the RP or GenAm version, though not as closed as in the Creole); semi-rhoticity, i.e., the dropping of the "-r" in words like "water" (at the end of unstressed syllables) and "market" (before a consonant); but not in words like "car" or "dare" (stressed syllables at the end of the word). Merger of the diphthongs in "fair" and "fear" takes place both in Jamaican Standard English and Jamaican Patois, resulting in those two words (and many others, like "bear" and "beer") becoming homophones. (Standard English speakers typically pronounce both closer to "air", while Jamaican Patois (Creole) speakers render them as "ear"). The short "a" sound (man, hat) is very open, similar to its Irish versions.
Language use: Jamaican Standard English versus Patois
It has been claimed that Jamaican Standard English and Jamaican Patois exist together in a post-creole speech continuum. Jamaican (Creole/Patois) is used by most people for everyday, informal situations - it is the language most Jamaicans use at home and are most familiar with, as well as the language of most local popular music. Standard English, on the other hand, is the language of education, high culture, government, the media and official/formal communications. It is also the native language of a small minority of Jamaicans (typically upper-class and upper/traditional middle-class). Most Creole-dominant speakers have a fair command of English and Standard English, through schooling and exposure to official culture and mass media; their receptive skills (understanding of Standard English) are typically much better than their productive skills (their own intended Standard English statements often show signs of Jamaican Creole interference).
Most writing in Jamaica is done in English (including private notes and correspondence). Jamaican Patois has a standardized orthography, and has only recently been taught in some schools. As a result, the majority of Jamaicans can read and write Standard English only, and have trouble deciphering written Patois (in which the writer tries to reflect characteristic structures and pronunciations to differing degrees, without compromising readability). Written Patois appears mostly in literature, especially in folkloristic "dialect poems"; in humoristic newspaper columns; and most recently, on internet chat sites frequented by younger Jamaicans, who seem to have a more positive attitude toward their own language use than their parents.
While, for the sake of simplicity, it is customary to describe Jamaican speech in terms of Standard English versus Jamaican Creole, a clear-cut dichotomy does not adequately describe the actual language use of most Jamaicans. Between the two extremes—"broad Patois" on one end of the spectrum, and "perfect" Standard English on the other—there are various in-between varieties. This situation typically results when a Creole language is in constant contact with Standardised English (superstrate or lexifier language) and is called a creole speech continuum. The least prestigious (most Creole) variety is called the basilect; Standard English (or high prestige) variety, the acrolect; and in-between versions are known as mesolects.
Consider, for example, the following forms:
- "im/(h)ihn de/da/a wok úoba désò" (basilect)
- "im workin ova deso" (low mesolect)
- "(H)e (h)is workin' over dere" (high mesolect)
- "He is working over there." (acrolect)
(As noted above, the "r" in "over" is not pronounced in any variety, but the one in "dere" or "there" is.)
Jamaicans choose from the varieties available to them according to the situation. A Creole-dominant speaker will choose a higher variety for formal occasions like official business or a wedding speech, and a lower one for relating to friends; a Standard English-dominant speaker is likely to employ a lower variety when shopping at the market than at their workplace. Code-switching can also be metacommunicative (as when a Standard-dominant speaker switches to a more heavily basilect-influenced variety in an attempt at humor or to express solidarity).
- Andrea Sand (1999), Linguistic Variation in Jamaica. A Corpus-Based Study of Radio and Newspaper Usage, Tübingen: Narr,.
- Peter L. Patrick (1999), Urban Jamaican Creole. Variation in the Mesolect. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: Benjamins.
- Jamaica Phrase Dictionary "Rasta/Patois Jamaica Dictionary"
- Dynamics of orthographic standardization in Jamaican Creole and Nigerian Pidgin, Dagmar Deuber and Lars Hinrichs, World Englishes 26, No. 1 (February 2007), pp. 22–47, doi:10.1111/j.1467-971X.2007.00486.x.
- Lars Hinrichs (2006), Codeswitching on the Web: English and Jamaican Patois in E-Mail Communication. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: Benjamins.