Walk into any government office, courtroom or classroom in Jamaica, and you’ll be expected to speak the official language, English.
But venture into the street, tune into a radio talk show, or flip through the pages of Di Jamiekan Nyuu Testiment, or step into someone’s home or scroll through the feeds of Jamaican influencers, and another language dominates: the astonishingly vibrant Patois.
Long stigmatized with second-class status and often mis-characterized as a poorly structured form of English, Patois has its own distinct grammar and pronunciation. Linguists say Patois, which is also called Patwa, Creole or, simply, Jamaican, is about as different from English as English is from German. It features a dizzying array of words borrowed from African, European and Asian languages.
Now, as Jamaica moves ahead with plans to cut ties to the British monarchy — a shift that would remove King Charles III as its head of state and make the Commonwealth’s largest country in the Caribbean into a republic — momentum is building to make Patois Jamaica’s official language, on par with English.
“If there was ever a time to definitively change the status of Jamaican Creole, it is now,” said Oneil Madden, a linguist at Jamaica’s Northern Caribbean University.
But the question of linguistic sovereignty has Jamaica’s top political leaders staking out positions. And the intensifying debate touches on issues of national identity, class divisions and the legacies of slavery in what was once one of Britain’s most prized overseas possessions.
A major shift in language policy in Jamaica — which has about 2.8 million people and is the third-largest Anglophone country in the Americas, after the United States and Canada — would resonate across the Caribbean and parts of Central and South America.
Last month Mark Golding, leader of the opposition People’s National Party, vowed to make Jamaican an official language, citing its importance in projecting the island nation’s culture beyond its borders.
“If it is loved abroad, why don’t we respect it a yaad?” Mr. Golding asked in a stirring speech, peppered with Patois words like “yaad,” which means home.
Prime Minister Andrew Holness, of the governing Jamaica Labour Party, has adopted a more subtle position, saying the language should be “institutionalized,” though stopping short of saying it should be elevated to official status.
The politics of language policy are coming into sharp relief as Jamaica advances plans for a referendum, as early as next year, on overhauling its Constitution and ties to its colonial-era overlord. While Jamaica gained independence in 1962, the break with the United Kingdom was never complete. Tethering its legal system to Britain, Jamaica’s highest court of appeal remains the privy council, based in London and staffed by judges from Britain’s Supreme Court.
That lingering sway is coming under renewed criticism in Jamaica, where more than 90 percent of the population is Black and memories endure of centuries of a slavery-based economy marked repeatedly by bloody revolts — especially after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak refused this year to apologize for Britain’s role in the slave trade or commit to paying reparations.
Still, supporters of the push to grant Patois official status say it would go far beyond symbolizing a break with Britain. They contend the shift would have practical implications, finally allowing Jamaicans to conduct official business in places like tax offices or parish courts in the country’s most widely spoken language. The use of Patois in such settings is largely ad hoc depending on the whims of government employees.
Some of the strongest support for making Jamaican an official language comes from within the education system. A growing number of teachers and administrators argue that prioritizing English does a disservice to younger children who start school when they are fluent in only Patois.
“We are teaching children to read in a foreign language,” said Grace Baston, who recently stepped down as principal of one of Jamaica’s top public secondary schools.
But, Ms. Baston added: “No one is trying to dethrone English. This is about preparing students to thrive in both languages.”
A 2021 report found that about a third of sixth graders were illiterate in English, and more than half had difficulty writing in English. Ms. Baston and others advocate using Patois as a bridge, teaching the basics to young children in Jamaican before transitioning to English.
Pushback against such proposals has been fierce. Peter Espeut, a biblical scholar whose relatively prosperous family spoke English at home, said he learned Creole from speaking with “domestic helpers in the house and in the yard.”
Mr. Espeut, the archivist for Kingston’s Roman Catholic Archdiocese, said granting enhanced status to Patois would be costly and impractical in a country with a couple of hundred Catholic schools. “There’s no way that the Catholic Church is going to prepare textbooks in the Jamaican language.”
Others are far more blunt, arguing that adopting Patois as an official language would make Jamaicans less proficient in the prevailing global language for international trade, tourism and academic research.
“Most Jamaicans have not mastered English, if the truth be told, because we prefer our plantation language, which, to a large extent, has crippled our social, intellectual and economic development,” Andrew Tucker, a former Spanish lecturer at Howard University, wrote in a column in The Jamaica Observer. “No serious foreign investor wants to communicate with someone in the Jamaican dialect.”
But Jamaican is pushing into new realms at home and abroad. Khadine Hylton, a lawyer and motivational speaker who goes by the moniker Miss Kitty, effortlessly blends Jamaican and English on radio, television and social media. Jamaican comedians on TikTok, like Negus Imara, and Ghanaian singers such as Stonebwoy reach huge followings in Patois.
Other countries around the Caribbean, especially where Creole languages are spoken alongside English, are closely following the debate here. Haiti, Curaçao and Aruba, some of Jamaica’s Caribbean neighbors, figure among the few countries around the world to have elevated their Creole languages to official status.
While theories vary, Creole languages are generally thought to have formed during colonial times from contact with languages like English, Portuguese or Arabic. In Jamaica, which was under British colonial rule for more than 300 years, the discussions about Patois are intertwined with its connections to the slave trade.
“Because the language was created in the context of slavery, the tendency has been to reject it,” said Joseph Farquharson, director of the University of the West Indies’ Jamaican Language Unit.
The linguist John H. McWhorter suggests that the English-based Creole languages of the Caribbean crystallized in the 17th century on Ghana’s coast, made the leap to Caribbean outposts and then spread to Jamaica and other parts of the Americas.
Others suggest that Jamaican, as well as other Creole languages, coalesced directly in the Caribbean in the 17th century while the Atlantic trade in enslaved Africans was intensifying, as English made contact with various African languages like Kikongo and Twi, a chief contributor of vocabulary to Jamaican.
Either way, Patois’s evolution offers a glimpse into Jamaica’s development as a British colony.
For instance, the ganja immortalized in reggae lyrics got its name from the Hindi word for cannabis, gāṁjā, after Indian laborers were taken to Jamaica in the 19th century. Pikni, the Patois word for a small child, comes from pequeninho, Portuguese for very small, reflecting the influence once wielded by Portuguese and Brazilian traders in enslaved people.
And the word nyam, to eat, is thought to come from Wolof, a lingua franca in West Africa.
Amina Blackwood Meeks, a prominent Jamaican storyteller, attributed some of the contentiousness about officially recognizing Patois to enduring contradictions in Jamaican society. She noted that Jamaica was known as the home of Marcus Garvey, the Black nationalist whose ideas influenced anticolonial movements around Africa.
“But this is also the land in which a few months ago Jamaicans got up at 4 in the morning and joined a line because Krispy Kreme came to Jamaica and were giving out free doughnuts,” said Ms. Blackwood Meeks, the orator at Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts, a Kingston art school.
“The Jamaican head space is a difficult head space,” she added, connecting the fervor for doughnuts, especially those viewed as superior because they come from the rich industrialized world, to the fears that challenging the supremacy of English could hurt Jamaica.
She added, “Anything which resembles breaking away from what we think has been good for us has been resisted.”