Black History Month Special, Features

Jamaican Patois: My Dislocated Dialect

For the first 10 years of my life I lived in Jamaica, and for the 10 years following that, I have been living in this country trying to understand my familiarity and discomfort with it. Although it took me a while to become accustomed to South London after moving there from Jamaica, and my first few years in this country were particularly isolating, there were moments every now and again where it felt like it could really be home. Of course, travelling back to South London from Norwich will never bring the cool warmth of stepping out of a plane into Kingston, Jamaica – but when I leave the train station there is an important sound that eases its way into the folds of my brain. That’s the sound of energy and music and life in the voices of Black Londoners. It is an amalgamation of the voices of different immigrant communities in London, and it carries the familiar sound of Jamaican patois. I walk in streets that have a distorted sense of home, and it means that I don’t have to feel so isolated as an immigrant in this country. 

The arrival of Caribbeans from the Empire Windrush in 1948 created a shift in the arts and culture of Britain. Although there had been Caribbeans in Britain since the 1800s, the Windrush generation arrived at a time when there was a space in British culture to be filled. After WWII the British were trying to rebuild, and the people that they invited to help brought their music, dance and language with them. It is no surprise then, that this created waves in British culture, and I am relieved that we are now at a place in our history where we can acknowledge the fact that genres such as drum and bass, dubstep, garage, and grime originated in Caribbean London, where Jamaican reggae was being fused with British music.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the integration of Jamaican patois into Multicultural London English (MLE) increased because of the way it was used in music. By the 1980s, this dialect became popular amongst young Londoners. It now feels as if I cannot shift in this country without hearing or seeing something that reminds me of home. But although this familiarity brings me a sense of comfort in London, there is an obvious disdain for people who speak in MLE – for some the language is associated with aggression, crime and social unrest. It is not perceived as a valid form of communication or expression because it does not obey the rules of Standard British English. This is clearly rooted in the colonial belief that cultures which are transgressive from white British culture are inferior.

There is something deeply insidious about the way that the English invited Caribbean people to their country, only to subjugate them and make it clear that they did not truly belong. This forced black people to create spaces in this country which could be their home – influencing new genres of music and the popular language of London while they did so. Despite this, they are paid no respect for their impact on the culture and are instead diminished and pushed to the corners of British society. It especially disturbs me that there are white people who embrace this music and language for the sake of entertainment, only to then enforce the stigma that comes with using MLE and perpetuate racism against the people whose language is butchered on their tongues.

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May 2022
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