English is the official language of Jamaica, but that’s an insufficient response to accurately do justice to the island’s linguistic profile. So what language do Jamaicans speak?
Well, there’s Jamaican English, and then there’s Jamaican Patois, which is the most widely spoken language. And though Jamaican Patois derives the bulk of its vocabulary from English, even the most surface-level introduction to its vocabulary will be enough to convince you that it’s a distinct language. That person you think is dumb? He’s bawn back a cow. And you must be bruck out (out of your mind) if you think the average American or Brit wouldn’t need some sort of language instruction to understand Jamaican parlance.
“How did Jamaicans come to talk as they do?” writes Frederic G. Cassidy in Jamaica Talk. “The musical lilt and staccato rhythms, the mingling of strange words, the vowel sounds that go sliding off into diphthongs, the cheerful defiance of many niceties of traditional English grammar, the salty idioms, the wonderfully compressed proverbs, the pungent imagery of nicknames and epithets in the bestowal of which these islanders appear to be peculiarly adept — where do all these hail from, and how did they come to be?”
What Language Do Jamaicans Speak?
Jamaican English is the official language of Jamaica, and it’s used in government, media, education and business. As a holdover from its colonial history, the English used in Jamaica has a largely British grammar and spelling, but it’s also been molded by American English over the years. And certain aspects of Irish intonation have also carried over to the country, because the Irish are the second-largest ethnic population in Jamaica.
Most Jamaicans do not speak English as a native language, but rather learn it in school as a second language, with the first being Jamaican Patois.
There are often class implications involved in speaking English versus Jamaican Patois, and there are frequent debates about making Jamaican Patois another official language of Jamaica. At one point, Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness stated that he’d like to make Spanish a second language of Jamaica to much controversy, as Jamaicans wondered why Spanish would be recognized before Patois.
Jamaican Patois, also known as Patwa and Jamaican Creole, is the most widely spoken language in the country. Compared to a reported 50,000 Jamaicans who speak English, there are 2.7 million who speak Jamaican Patois, a type of English creole that arose during the slave trade. A blend of African languages, English, Arawakan (the Aboriginal language of Jamaica), French, Chinese, Portuguese, Irish, Scottish and Spanish all combined to form Jamaican Patois. While it has been treated as a “lower” form of language for part of its history, it has since been reclaimed as a language of freedom and Jamaican independence.
Though Jamaican Patois existed largely as an oral language throughout much of its history, linguists and novelists have recently given form to its written legacy. And thanks to unique music genres like reggae and dancehall, it is now a global cultural export that people from all over the world are eager to learn and listen to. The Patois is not necessarily eagerly accepted by mainstream audiences, however. One of Jamaica’s biggest musical exports, Bob Marley, had commercial success that was predicated on swapping his Jamaican Patois for English that white audiences would be able to understand.
Minority Languages in Jamaica
Besides English and Jamaican Patois, what language do Jamaicans speak, if any? Jamaica’s only living indigenous language is Arawakan, which is spoken by the Aboriginal population known as the Taino people.
There is also a small cluster of Kromanti speakers who are largely descendants of the Maroons of Moore Town, who were runaway slaves that lived independently in the mountains of Eastern Jamaica.
Jamaican Sign Language has roughly 7,500 speakers, which is by and large considered a dialect of American Sign Language, and there are approximately 40 speakers of Konchri Sain, otherwise known as Jamaican Country Sign Language.
There are also immigrant populations scattered throughout Jamaica who speak Portuguese, Spanish, Chinese and Arabic.