February 28, 2023
by: Shamara Peart
This is the second piece in our series Jamaican Patwa Meets Toronto English.
In order to understand Jamaican Patwa, we need to understand the history of Jamaica and its population. If we focus exclusively on language and ignore the rich, violent history that infuses this island community, we will fail to understand the complexity and character of Patwa. The linguistic influences of early Indigenous populations, Spanish and English colonizers and West African slaves can all be found in the Patwa that we speak today.
For centuries, the island was inhabited by different Indigenous communities. Around the 1500s, Spain seized control of the island, and the primarily Arawak-speaking Taino’s were largely exterminated through enslavement and disease. Spanish rule ended when Britain invaded in 1670. In addition to Spanish and English, the language of Irish and Scottish soldiers also contributed to the nation’s dialects.
The British, like the Spanish before them, brought slaves from West and Central Africa to cultivate sugarcane and other crops. Between the years of 1690-1838, slaves from a variety of countries and language backgrounds became the majority of Jamaica’s population.
African slaves shared their speech and a “pidgin” was formed, a way of communicating based on a combination of features from different languages. The pidgin continuously evolved to meet the needs of the people. Eventually the grammar regularized and it became a full-fledged language, at which point linguists refer to it as a “creole”. (This is why the language is often called “Jamaican Creole”, but see my introduction as to why I choose to call it “Jamaican Patwa”.)
Meanwhile, increasing numbers of escaped slaves fought back against British rule and fled to live in the mountains. These people, the “Maroons” rebelled for hundreds of years and developed their own culture in Jamaica’s forested hills, using guerrilla warfare to resist recapture. Today, their culture (and descendants) still exist in Jamaica. In addition to internal strife, the country faced external pressure from the Spanish and French. Britain remained in power until Jamaica gained independence in 1962.
With recognition of Jamaican Patwa in the constitution, the language flourished. Literacy increased and stylistic variants developed. Jamaican literature and music found an international audience, introducing Patwa to the world.
As Jamaicans left the island and settled in different countries, so did Patwa. “As Jamaicans migrated to seek work in Panama, Honduras and Cuba, and later to London, Brooklyn and Toronto, they took their language with them” (Chang, 2021). In her article “How The Language Of Jamaica Became Mainstream”, Eternity Martis writes: “Patois is more than just an island ting: it’s a language holding Jamaicans around the world together."
This may be an oversimplification of Jamaica’s history, but it highlights how many different influences have come together to create Patwa. For me, the country's national motto,“Out of many, one people”, rings true.
Allsopp, R. (Ed.). (2003) Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage. Jamaica, University of the West Indies Press.
Encyclopedia Britannica. (2022, Dec. 4). Jamaica: Additional Reading.
Martis, E. (2018, April 25). How the language of Jamaica became mainstream. The FADER.