Why Does Jamaicans Speak English?

Answer by Devin Saunds-Dunkley, Associate Writer

This question could be answered straight off the bat by saying that we speak “English” because it’s the language which was instilled in us following the British rule in 1665 to our independence in 1962.

After capturing the island from the Spanish, all semblance of Spanish rule was removed or destroyed (except for some place names) and the English added their touch.

But is it the true language of the islanders? Is it the language with which we communicate daily?

If one should visit the island, tour all the parishes and communicate with the people in each parish, they would experience a wide variety of vernacular, all unique to the area in which it was encountered and readily understood by the people of that region.

A visit to the business community would find people communicating in what may be called Jamaican Standard English (JSE), a mixture or fusion of British and American English, which is recognized as the official language of Jamaica and the language in which businesses – education, media, policies and governance, are conducted.

Arguably though, this JSE is used mainly in what would be considered the ‘upper class’ and so we are forced to really ask, what is the language used by Jamaicans?


During the slave trade, the Africans spent a lot of time together and in the presence of their new or would-be new owners before they are herded off to the place they would call home. During this gathering, they developed their own means of verbal communication which was a mixture of African and the European vernacular which is creole.

This they used to communicate with their masters and other slaves and became their native tongues as they lived and worked on the plantations and started their families. This was a part of their culture which they passed down to their children through stories and folk tales.

As time evolved, so did the language as it passed from generation to generation and varied across parishes. Patois (pronounced patwah) as the language is called, is used as a means of communication in many Jamaican homes, songs and other informal settings and comes with its own structure and grammatical rules.

The beauty with this language is that there are variations to it as one goes deeper in the parishes and yet it is understood by all the islanders and often evokes laughter as visitors to the island try to mimic the words they hear, but end up with a new variation themselves!

Because of this variation across parishes, there has been a number of debates against its uses, especially teaching its use in schools in order to help students understand the JSE.

Today, patois has earned its place in the Department of Languages at the University of the West Indies Jamaica, The African Language Program at Harvard (only when the need arises), and the Department of Languages, Literature and Linguistics at York University, Canada.

A number of writers have published books on translating the patois to JSE for the purpose of visitors to our island. These books vary from sight words to sentences, plurals and proverbs, enough to teach the visitors how to communicate with us in our native tongouue.

Despite both languages existing side by side, there is the understanding among people when, where and how to use which, thus making the language a versatile one.

Note: If you are interested in learning patios, the 'real' Jamaican language, visit this page on Amazon.com for some cool recommendations.

See also: The Language Of Jamaica

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