“Is English spoken in Jamaica?” This is a question I get asked not infrequently, especially since I’ve lived here in Europe. It’s something many are curious about, as evidenced by the over 300,000 Google search results. So, what’s the deal – do Jamaicans speak English as their native language? The answer in short is: yes. And if you want to know why, we’ll need to look to its colonial past.
Located in the Caribbean, Jamaica happens to be the third most populous Anglophone (English-speaking) country in the Americas, only outnumbered by the United States and Canada. No small feat for an island of only 10,991 square kilometres with a population of just under 3 million! The fact is that throughout the Caribbean, numerous islands have English as their official language; 18 to be exact. Other European languages which serve as official languages in the Caribbean are Spanish, French and Dutch, with Spanish being the most dominant in terms of population figures.
The official languages of each nation within the Caribbean was essentially determined by the European country that governed it the longest. Much the same as Spain once ruled the majority of Latin and South America, countries in the Caribbean such as Cuba and the Dominican Republic were also Spanish colonies once upon a time. It is therefore understandable why the official language of these countries is Spanish. Similarly, Britain had large swathes of the Caribbean as colonies from the seventeenth century until the twentieth century when many of these gained independence. Most would agree that three centuries is a very long time, and so it’s unsurprising that these countries have retained the language of their former colonisers down to this day.
Fun fact: Many of the British-ruled islands in the Caribbean were previously Spanish-ruled, including Jamaica, until 1655.Jamaica was under British governance from 1655 until 1962. However, although the island achieved independence from Britain, the Queen of England is still considered the Head of State. It being a ex-British colony, as is the case with most Commonwealth countries, English is the official language of education, commerce, and the institutional world. Every child is taught English in school in addition to many British customs and holidays being celebrated.
As any good student of languages will know, there are several variants of the English Language, which is the same with many other languages such as Latin American Spanish versus Castilian Spanish. So, back to English. British and American English are well known for sure, but there’s also undeniably a form of Jamaican English. While Jamaica has kept the essential “British-ness” in terms of much of its lexis, grammar and spelling conventions, over time, the proximity to the United States and the close relationship between the peoples of both nations has had an influence on English spoken in Jamaica. For example, we call a car’s “maletero” by the American term “trunk” instead of the British term “boot” and instead of the British term “lift”, we refer to “un ascensor” as an “elevator”, the way the Americans do.
In addition to English, Jamaicans also speak a creole language known to many as Patois. This creole language originated during the period of British colonisation and is thought to be influenced mainly by West African, Irish, Scottish as well as English dialects. Used almost exclusively in informal settings, Jamaican creole is mainly an oral language, with the majority of inhabitants only being taught to read, write and speak in Standard English.
As a language student, no doubt you will find the origins of languages spoken throughout the world interesting. It deepens your understanding of the language you are learning and will no doubt support your language learning goals as you get more acquainted with (and perhaps develop an affinity for) the varying cultures of English-speaking countries. After reading this article, hopefully you will have learned something new and your interest will be piqued to seek out even more fun facts about the English language.