How Jamaican Creole became a language

It’s been a month since my last blog post, and I apologise for that. Life has been hectic, to say the least.

Anyway, I thought I’d restart my regular weekly posts by giving a possible answer to a question I raised in my post about the mini-series Roots: How did Jamaican Creole become a full language, while Ebonics (African American Vernacular English) is a dialect of English? Both started in the midst of the African slave trade. So… what was different about Jamaica?

I have to say, I was surprised when a possible answer presented itself in the form of a tiny, yet powerful force: The mosquito.


Aedes aegypti, AKA the yellow fever mosquito

Dr Alfred Dawes, past president of the Jamaica Medican Doctors Association, wrote that the Aedes aegypti and Anopheles mosquitoes came to Jamaica along with enslaved Africans on the slave ships of the Middle Passage. By spreading yellow fever and malaria, these little critters shaped by country’s history more than I could have imagined:

These new diseases devastated the unexposed population in the Americas. The records from that era show a high mortality rate for the whites, especially those who were recent arrivals to the Indies.

No extensive records of slave deaths were kept but it is fair to assume that some immunity existed in the previously exposed Africans. The high death rate of the whites meant that there was little chance for the evolution of a large white population in Jamaica compared to North America. Most of the population were born overseas and Jamaica was never viewed as home, but as an outpost where fortunes could be made to return to their motherland.
Dr Alfred Dawes | How Mosquitoes Shaped Jamaica, emphasis added

So why did Patwa become a language while Ebonics is still a dialect? My theory: numbers. Not only there were less Europeans compared to Africans, there was a relatively a smaller population of European families who lived here for generations, unlike America. This is true of Jamaica, even today. Most Jamaicans (over 90%) are of African descent.

These small numbers of whites meant there was less pressure for the enslaved to take on the speech of their owners. As a result, there was more African grammar, lexicon, and phonology in their speech.

Interesting, huh? Thanks for the info, Dr Dawes!

This entry was posted in English, Languages, Linguistics, Patwa and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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