Black languages throughout the Diaspora 

By Sophia Purdy-Moore

Black British English, West African Creole, Jamaican Patois and more…

Although Black British people only make up 3% of the UK’s general population, Black British English has had a profound impact on British and global culture. Black British English is a combination of The Jamaican Language (Patois), West African Creole (Pidgin) and Black-British vernacular. The Jamaican Language is derived from West African languages such as Ibo, Yoruba and Mende, as well as English vernacular. Because enslaved Black people who lived on Caribbean plantations often didn’t share a common language, they communicated by using elements of West African languages and English vernacular. They eventually formed a distinctive creolised language – known as ‘patois’ – to express their new experiences and identities as enslaved people in the New World. 

In the postwar period, people from the Caribbean migrated en masse to the UK. The first to arrive travelled on a passenger ship called The Empire Windrush. 802 people from the Caribbean – including 492 Jamaican immigrants – arrived in Tilbury Docks in 1948. Many Caribbean migrants who came to rebuild Britain settled in predominantly working-class areas in industrialised cities such as London, Birmingham and Leeds, along with migrants from India, Bangladesh and Africa. Due to the presence of Caribbean migrants and the popularity of genres of Jamaican music, particularly reggae, Jamaican patois became very influential in the formation of Black British English. The children and grandchildren of Caribbean migrants developed Black British English through their intercultural interactions. Due to Caribbean migration to the US and Canada, there are also significant patois-speaking communities in Miami, New York City, and Toronto.

Featured image via English Heritage

Common misconceptions 

Most languages are creolised. English was once a West Germanic dialect spoken by Germanic tribes. Early Germanic settlers – the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes – brought their language to Britain in the 5th century. Its vocabulary has been greatly influenced by Norman French and Latin.

Many creolised languages spoken throughout the African diaspora are the result of contact between indigenous languages and a European language through the transatlantic slave trade. According to Hubert Devonish, a linguistics professor at the University of the West Indies, these languages “tend to borrow most of the vocabulary from the European language”, but employ West African pronunciation and grammar. This is the case in African American Vernacular English and Jamaican patois – for example the use of ‘dat’ and ‘dem’. The same is true of Black British English, which is regarded as a language in its own right rather than as a dialect – or version – of standard English. Black British English has a consistent system of grammar and speech, and a large, unique body of vocabulary. Rules and structures in Black British English include the unique use of the third person as the first person – such as ‘man don’t care’, meaning ‘I don’t care’.  

This is important to note, because Black languages throughout the diaspora have been stigmatised. Many people misconstrue Black languages such as Black British English and African American Vernacular English to be ‘slang’ or grammatically incorrect English. Although the majority of Jamaicans speak patois as their first language, English is still the nation’s official language. This is the same for Creole speakers in other Caribbean countries such as Trinidad, Barbados and Guyana. Black language speakers are often ignorantly misrepresented as ‘improper language’. This leads many in the US and the UK to ‘code switch’ when speaking in a professional setting or to people outside their community. 

The impact of Black languages on culture today

Famous Brits who speak Black British English to express themselves include poet Benjamin Zepheniah. He creates dub-poetry – a form of performance poetry that originates from

the Caribbean. He recites his poetry over a reggae beat. In his poetry, he expresses himself through a combination of Jamaican patois and Black British English. Like many descendants of the African diaspora, Zepheniah rejected his OBE due to its celebration the British empire, which was responsible for the enslavement, oppression and exploitation of people of African descent.  

Featured image via Spotify

In TV and film, we hear characters speaking Black British English – for example in Top Boy and Kidulthood. Many grime and British hip hop artists – such as Dave, Stormzy and AJ Tracey – express themselves speaking or rapping using Black British English. Due to the profound influence of Black British and Jamaican culture on youth culture in Britain, people from other cultures have appropriated the language to a certain extent. Some say that Sacha Baron Cohen’s satirical fictional character ‘Ali G’ is a parody of white young people who attempt to emulate the language. Others argue that this representation is just a harmful stereotype, caricature, and appropriation of urban Black British hip hop and Jamaican culture. 

Beyond the UK, patois has had a profound impact on Canadian language-ways. The country’s relaxed immigration laws in the 1960s meant that large numbers of people from Jamaica and other Caribbean islands migrated to urban centres like Toronto. Today, around 30% of Canada’s Black population has Jamaican ancestry. Due to this significant Jamaican population, and the weight of Jamaican culture, it has become part of Toronto’s mainstream culture.  

Some have accused Drake – a musician of African American and Jewish heritage – of appropriating Jamaican patois in his recent music. However, his upbringing in Scarborough (the heart of Canada’s Jamaican community) complicates his claim to this cultural heritage. Drake is not alone in his imitation of Jamaican culture. Indeed, many regard patois words such as ‘yute’, ‘ting’, ‘dun kno’, ‘ahlie’ and ‘mandem’ as Canadian slang, disregarding their Jamaican roots.

Black diasporic languages have had – and continue to have – a profound impact on global language and culture. They are a fundamental aspect of Black heritage, expression, and cultural memory. Created in response to the harsh realities of and resistance to enslavement, Black languages tell the diaspora’s histories of migration and resistance to white supremacy. Today, they bind Black communities together on an individual, local, and global scale.

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