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Analysing Jamaican Creole Through English Language Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 1897 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Creoles can be generally defined as genuinely mixed languages, which emerged from the blending together of two or more different languages and became the mother tongue of a new generation of speakers, acquiring “the full range of communicative functions that a native language needs” (Svartvik 2006: p.183). Most creoles developed as a result of colonialism and lived side by side with the dominant language. As a consequence, these contact varieties were reduced to lower functions and seen as “deviant” or “broken” forms of the language from which they derived. Nevertheless, since postcolonial times, there has been a shift towards the recognition and acceptance of national languages and identities, which has given rise to a new status and opportunities for those stigmatised varieties (Schneider 2007). Jamaican Creole, generally known as “Patwa”, can be considered as a good example of English-based creole which has begun to overcome stigma around its use and be recognised as a fully developed language, as well as a symbol of Jamaican identity ( Schneider 2010: p.102).

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Jamaican Creole has its origins in the late 17th century, when British colonised the territory (1655) and imported slaves from West Africa to work in the plantations. Those Africans soon started to outnumber white population and became the linguistic models of the new slaves, contributing with this to spread the creole (Schneider 2007). During the decades of colonialism, Jamaica´s language and culture were dominated by the British norms. In this sense, Standard English was considered as the “highest” variety, acquired through formal education and used in public and formal context (Devonish and Harry 2008: p. 256); for its part, Jamaican Creole was stigmatised as a ” bastardized distortion of English, to be avoided at all costs in public discourse” (Schneider 2010: p.102). After independence in 1962, a sense of nationalism emerged and led to new attitudes towards Jamaica´s national culture and language. However, this way for acceptance was not easy and Jamaicans had to fight against prejudices and an exonormative orientation which favoured the Standard variety without taking into account realities of language use and the Jamaicans´ identity (Schneider 2007: p.234). The figure of Louise Bennett may be used to represent the spirit of this period and can help us to understand the current linguistic situation in Jamaica. Therefore, taking one of the Bennett´s most famous poems “Back to Africa” (1966), we are going to analyse the features of Jamaican Creole, as well as the reason that led the poet to use this variety and the ideas she wanted to transmit.

The poem deals with a girl, called “Miss Mattie”, who wants to go back to Africa because she thinks that her homeland is there. The poetic voice develops a group of arguments to try to persuade the girl not to emigrate to that continent and, at the same time, offers the reader a good description of Jamaica´s essence.

Firstly, Bennett presents Jamaica´s population as a combination of different cultures: (…) you great great great/ Granma was African/ But Mattie, doan you great great great/ Granpa was Englishman? (…)/ You whole generation (…)/ oonoo all is Jamaican! According to Holm (2000: p.93): “Ethnic origin of the population in the 1960 census was 76% African, 15% Afro-European, 3.5% East Indian, 1% European, 1% Chinese and 3% other”. Nowadays, it is estimated that “over 90% of Jamaica´s population are of African origin” (Schneider 2008: p.610). Secondly, the poet alludes to Jamaicans´ facial features and colour, which reflect their African heritage and distinguish them from English people: oh, you view the countenance/ and between you an de Africans/is great resemblance!. Therefore, Bennett introduces in this poem the defining characteristics of the Jamaican population: their cultural melting pot and their strong African roots.

Finally, the poetic voice claims that the girl does not need to look for her homeland because Jamaica is already her home: you dah go fe seek you homelan/ for a right deh so you deh!. In this sense, the poet considers that the real homeland is the place where one is born, rather than the country of ancestral origins. In the same vein, Bennett also seems to encourage Jamaicans to accept their African heritage and make the island their own home, as it is the only way to achieve self-identification: do Sure a whe you come from so you got/ somewhe fe come back to!

Regarding the language, the poem is entirely written in basilectal creole. Jamaican Creole has West African languages as its substrate (Startvik 2006: p. 183); which means that languages from Akan, Kwa and Buntu families are likely to have influenced part of Jamaican basic grammar and pronunciation (Patrick 2008: p.610). In this sense, as it can be seen in the poem, Jamaican Creole shares several characteristics with the rest of Atlantic Creoles and differs in some aspects from the English grammar.

Firstly, in Jamaican Creole, tense and aspect are not marked by inflectional morphology, but by context. Therefore, neither the third person singular -s nor the past form of the verb come were found in the poem: Ef the whole worl start [`starts´] fe go back/ whe dem great granpa come [`came´] from!. In the same vein, progressive aspect is only signalled by pre-verbal dah (you no know wha you dah seh?) and the base form of the verb is used to express participle function in do/Sure a whe you come [`have come´] from (…); however, non-concord was appears in the poem to express the past form of the verb to be: (…) you great great great/ Granma was Africa.

Secondly, auxiliary verbs were not found in interrogative or negative sentences. Negation is marked by means of the preverbal negator no, both in negative declaratives sentences and in imperative ones. The use of no is a “distinctly creole” feature (Scheneider 2010: p.106), which is also very common in other languages, such as Spanish, and can be seen in the early stages of the grammar of second language learners, as well as in child language acquisition. Other negative structures are the use of doan in negative tags (But Mattie, doan you great great great/ Granpa was Englisman?) and the presence of double negations (But no tell nobody say); which is a feature that appears not only in other creoles, but also in other non-standard English varieties (Schneider 2010: p.106).

Regarding pronouns, first and second personal forms were found: Me, you, oonoo (`unu´) and also interrogative pronouns; such as weh/whe (`where´), as well as the possessive form who-fa (`whose´). Furthermore, as Patrick (2008: p.633) claims, bare personal pronouns sometimes fulfil possessive functions; in this sense, “you” can refer to the personal pronoun you or to the possessive you: Ef a hard time you dah run from/Tek you (`your´) chance!. In the same manner, a single preposition can also cover a range of functions (Schneider 2010: p.106): Mus go back a (`to´) Englan, de balance a (`of´) you family. The use of a single form playing several roles is a characteristic that all the linguistic systems possess as a result of applying one of the most fundamental principles of the language: economy.

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Another feature of Jamaican Creole is the lack of grammatical suffixes (Schneider 2010: p.106). In this sense, possessive -s is avoided and, as Patrick (2008: p.633) says, possession can be expressed by juxtaposition (possessor+ possessed), as in great granmader fader, or by the use of the preposition a (`of´), as in de balance a you family. In the same vein, plural of nouns are generally not marked or they are expressed by means of the morpheme dem, although it was not found in this poem; rather, Louise Bennett alternates zero-marking of plural (American), very common in basilectal speech, with the plural allomorph -s (Africans), which is closed to mesolectal and acrolectal forms. Finally, it is necessary to point out the use of passive meanings in active form (as in oonoo all barn dung a Bun Grung), as well as the use of fe (`to´) as the infinitive marker and the presence of “say and seh as the complementizer (correspoding to that) to introduce a finit object clause after verbs of thinking or talking” (Schneider 2010: p. 106): Me know say dat [`I know that´] (…)

Apart from the grammar, the manner in which some words were written contributes to reflect locally pronunciation features. In this sense, it was found that the diphthong /ei/, as in `take´, is monophthongized, giving rise to the form tek. In the same manner, fricatives [θ], [ð] and [Ê’] do not exist in Jamaican creole (Devonish and Harry 2008: p. 285); therefore, they are substituted by stops (Schneider 2010: p.105), as in the case of dat (`that´), fader/mader (`father´/`mother´) or den (`then´). Finally, as in other varieties, word-final or syllable-final consonant clusters are usually omitted (Schneider 2010: p.105); this can be seen in words as granpa/granma (`grandpa´/ `grandma´), an (`and´), mus (`must´) or homelan (`homeland´).

Writing her poems in Jamaican Creole and talking about a national identity, Louise Bennett shows her commitment to a language and a culture that have been undervalue and marginalised throughout time. In this sense, she demonstrates that Jamaican Creole is neither a broken or deficient variety, but, as it was analysed, one “fully developed language with its own grammar and vocabulary (Svartvik 2006: p. 176) and; consequently, as able as the Standard English to express the whole range of human experiences, thoughts and emotions.

Figures as Louise Bennett contributed to instil pride in Jamaican´s national language and culture; that is why, nowadays the linguistic situation in this country is totally different from past decades. Although, Standard English is expected to be the variety used in official contexts and by educated speakers (Schneider 2007), most Jamaicans speak a kind of mesolect, a variety which is “midway on the continuum between creole and the standard language” (Svartvik 2006: p.181) and they moved towards acrolectal or basilectal forms depending on several factors, such as the formality of the context or the social relationship between the interlocutors (Schneider 2007). This lack of correspondence between expectations and reality has led to more tolerant attitudes which have result in new education policies, more presence of creole in political and literary contexts, as well as in the media. Furthermore, attempts to codify the variety with the elaboration of grammars (Cassidy) and dictionaries (Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage) reflect the efforts to make Jamaican Creole an official language (Schneider 2007). However, fifty years after the political independence, some prejudices and debates about the use of Creole still remain and it is only in the power of Jamaicans to make creole a stronger language and a symbol of their identity.

Modal verbs, such as mus (`must´), and the infinite marker fe (`to´) were also found in the poem, both fulfilling the same function as in Standard English.


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