What language do they speak in Jamaica?
Published on October 27, 2022 / Updated on January 5, 2024
No matter how little you know about Jamaican languages, you probably have an idea of what you think Jamaicans sound like. Maybe you’ve heard the lyrics in a reggae song, or the exaggerated accents of Jamaican movie characters.
But have you ever asked yourself, “What language do Jamaicans speak?” Is there a language called “Jamaican”?
There are two main languages in Jamaica: English is the official language, but the majority of the population speaks an English-based creole language called Jamaican Patois. Which language is spoken depends entirely on the situation.
Read on as we discuss the languages spoken in Jamaica and how they came to be. We’ll also provide you with a few examples of common Patois words and phrases.
As we mentioned, English is Jamaica’s official language, so it falls under the Indo-European language family. The primary use of English in Jamaica is in business, government and educational settings. For some, speaking standard English also signifies high social status.
The English language has been spoken in Jamaica for close to 400 years. In 1655, the British invaded Jamaica and began driving out the Spanish, who had previously had control of the island.
Unsurprisingly, because of the way English was brought over, the spelling and vocabulary of Jamaican English are largely influenced by British English. However, the pronunciation of Jamaican English words can be quite different from standard British English.
Although Jamaican English is technically the country’s official language, there’s an unofficial official language in Jamaica called Jamaican Patois (aka Patwa or Jamaican Creole). This creole language is widely spoken across Jamaica.
While Jamaican Patois is quite different from standard English, there’s actually some overlap between the two—that’s because much of Jamaican Patois is derived from British English.
During the slave trade of the 1600s, Africans were brought to Jamaica to work on plantations. These enslaved people came with a variety of native languages. Eventually, they began learning English—the language of the slave owners—and combined it with their own languages. They also borrowed words from other languages such as Spanish, Hindi and Arawak, an aboriginal language of Jamaica that’s nearly extinct today. Jamaican Patois is just one of many examples of creole languages that were developed from the African diaspora.
When Jamaicans gained their independence around 300 years later, Jamaican Patois stuck around. With deep cultural and historical roots, Patois is Jamaica’s main language for passing stories and customs down from one generation to the next.
Since Jamaican Patois is the most widespread language in the country, we thought we’d give you a few examples of words and phrases:
To hear how some common Patois words sound, have a listen here.
So, what language do they speak in Jamaica?
Well, it’s all about context.
Although English is Jamaica’s official language of government and business, Patois is undeniably a deeply rooted and integral part of Jamaicans’ vibrant culture.