Jafaican doesn't exist

« previous post | next post »

To answer the many critics of his "whites have become black" diatribe, the Tudor historian and obnoxious TV personality David Starkey published an article in The Telegraph on August 19 defending his stance on the way Jamaican linguistic patterns are allegedly implicated in the cause of the English riots. The linguistically relevant point is that he has now shifted his reference away from "Jamaican patois", which is a synonym for Jamaican Creole, Ethnologue code JAM, henceforth JC (see my article in Times Higher Education on this). He now cites a "mixed race" critic of "ghetto grammar" to back up his condemnation:

Lindsay Johns, the Oxford-educated mixed-race writer who mentors young people in Peckham, argues passionately against "this insulting and demeaning acceptance" of a fake Jamaican — or "Jafaican" — patois. "Language is power", Johns writes, and to use "ghetto grammar" renders the young powerless.

Starkey goes on to say:

[I]t is the white lumpen proletariat, cruelly known as the "chavs", who have integrated into the pervasive black "gangsta" culture: they wear the same clothes; they talk and text in the same Jafaican patois; and, as their participation in recent events shows, they have become as disaffected and riotous.

So now Starkey is saying explicitly that it's Jafaican (also spelled Jafaikan in the press) that he's talking about. Well, that changes things. Because I'm going to argue that Jafaican (unlike JC) doesn't really exist.

Language Log visited this topic five years ago, and at the time Mark said "To my disappointment, I've been unable to find any sound clips illustrating the trends — surely in this multi-media age, someone can produce a few sound clips to back up all the textual verbiage!" No one seems to have come up with anything the slightest bit convincing. And my probing around in possibly relevant sources (including some sociolinguistic work on Thames Estuary dialects by Paul Kerswill and Jennie Cheshire) suggests that Jafaican is nothing but hype.

Jonathan Brown in the Independent offered a guide headed "How to speak Jafaican", and Emily Ashton in the Guardian wrote a piece called "Learn Jafaican in two minutes" (in the Higher Education Research section!). These sound like they would be one-stop shopping for the linguist; but they are nothing but brief and non-serious journalistic come-ons, in articles dominated by the putative "news" that Cockney is under threat, and all apparently mined from the same sources (information released by Sue Fox and Jenny Cheshire at Queen Mary, University of London).

All that is actually on offer is a set of rough translations for a total of 20 slang words, plus a 34-word text that Emily Ashton apparently invented to use several of them in a few sentences:

Safe, man. You lookin buff in dem low batties. Dey's sick, man. Me? I'm just jammin wid me bruds. Dis my yard, innit? Is nang, you get me? No? What ends you from then?

This unlikely snatch of London chit-chat is supposed to mean something like: "Hello. You are looking attractive in those low-slung pants. They're good. Me, I'm just passing time with my associates. This is my home, isn't it? It's good, you know what I mean? No? What area are you from, then?" (Doesn't sound very plausible to me, but heck, I'm not claiming to be an expert on the sociolinguistic study of young East Londoners' English.)

What I do know is that you can't parlay a couple of dozen colloquial neologisms into a new language. Even if all the words cited came from Jamaica, this would still be only a tiny and unimportant contribution to the English lexicon. But in fact, so careless has the descriptive work been that it looks as if nobody has a couple of dozen examples of authentic Jamaican borrowings that occur frequently in London English.

There are some good reference works on JC, the best (for lexicography) being Dictionary of Jamaican English by Fred Cassidy and Robert B. Le Page (Cambridge University Press, 1967; henceforth DJE). Yes, it's over 40 years old, and it isn't complete (no dictionary is); there will have been linguistic developments in the subsequent decades (though in fact I have rarely encountered genuine JC words that can't be found in it: the creolized form of English in Jamaica has deep roots, and much of the language has been stable for over three hundred years).

In the table below I try to assess the plausibility of a Jamaican provenance for the words in the lists that the the credulous English newspapers were printing in 2006 to exemplify this new dialect of pseudo-Jamaican London English, with the meanings and notes on what I can find out about their etymologies. (A clipping is a new word created by leaving some of the syllables out. In foreclippings it is the beginning of the word that is dropped, and in back-clippings it is the ending.)

Word Meaning Etymological notes
allow forget Allow (JC lou by foreclipping) in this sense is from JC. Allow it (lou i) means what fugeddaboutit means in US vernacular.
bare very Bare (JC bier) is attested in Jamaica meaning "mere" or "merely", and also "totally" (as in bier fuulishnes "total idiocy"), but not exactly "very".
batties pants Botty (also spelled batty) means "bottom" in JC (hence botty man"), and a metonymy (or perhaps a back-clipping from bati raida "bottom-riders") has led to low-slung pants being described as low botties.
beg talk trash Means "ask" in JC as in English. Using it to cover irrelevant prattle is a natural extension (think about what it's like to deal with someone who is begging for something); but I know of no evidence for this sense being common in JC.
blad blood brother Corresponds to JC blod "blood relative", but just as familiar from American gang talk as from Jamaican.
bruv/bredren bro(ther) Bredren (cf. archaic English brethren) is JC for "brothers", but bruv is just London English for "brother"; the two are confused in the newspaper lists.
buff attractive Common in JC, especially for attractiveness associated with visible physical characteristics such as muscles.
chat talk back Not JC as far as I can discover.
creps trainers JC crep (obviously a back-clipping from English crepe-soled shoes, roughly comparable to trainers in the 1950s) is used for trainers or sneakers.
deep rude No signs of this slang meaning in JC as far as I can discover.
ends area Enz "area" is found in JC.
hype excitement A familiar back-clipping from hyper-; common in JC, but also in English generally.
jam hang out Found in JC, but also familiar from American jazz musicians' slang. Etymologies going back to words for musical get-togethers in various West African languages. Possibly imported to UK on the basis of the Bob Marley song Jammin'.
nang good As Emily Ashton actually points out, this originates not in Jamaica but in Australia!
nuff very A foreclipping of enough with changed meaning and syntax, long attested in JC.
safe hello Reportedly in use in Jamaica, but not in DJE, so probably recent.
sick good Understandable as a meaning reversal like the one that turns bad into "good" in African American vernacular. Found in JC, but also in American hip-hop talk.
sket slut From recent JC sketel or skets "loose woman" (not in DJE; may be only 20 to 30 years old).
yard home Familiar JC for a home compound.
yute kids A Jamaicanized pronunciation of English youth with t instead of th.

So I can see 10 items that could be plausibly claimed to be direct borrowings from JC, and maybe as many as 15 if one is fairly generous in crediting JC connections and ignoring American and general English developments. This seems to be the totality of the evidence for the new language or dialect that Starkey finds importantly associated with the culture that led to the August riots.

What might convince me that there is some real merger of languages going on would be extensive evidence of English kids saying not just I'm jammin' wiv my bruvs, (London English with the borrowed verb jam), but mi a jam wid mi blod, with JC syntax and morphology (a is the progressive aspect auxiliary; mi corresponding to both nominative I; no obligatory plural marking on nouns).

If the newspapers' word lists are all the linguistic evidence we have, then I'd say Jafaican doesn't appear to exist. 10 to 15 recent slang terms borrowed from one ethnic group under conditions of close social contact do not make a new language, a new patois, or a new "ghetto grammar". (In fact considering the huge influence of Jamaicans in popular music over the past thirty years, it's a surprisingly small number.) The linguistic parts of Starkey's comments about Jamaican influence (and Lindsay Johns's too) are ignorant nonsense and should never have been publicly uttered.


Footnote: This post was revised substantively on the morning of 30 August 2011. I am not pretending I am properly qualified to do JC lexicography, but I have had some useful advice from people who are, including Hubert Devonish and Joseph Farquharson, to whom I am very grateful. I may update and revise the chart above a bit more if I learn more, so don't take it as definitive; but I think it's now broadly accurate.


[Starkey's article in the Telegraph triggered a 2300-comment tsunami of bad spelling and political extremism, including some of the most racist public discourse I have seen in decades, with talk of policies like repatriating all those "not born of Anglo-Saxon fathers". Comments are closed here, because this is Language Log, not British-National-Party Send-Back-the-Wog Log.]

Share:



Comments are closed.