Jamaican Creole, a Language on its own? An Interview with Professor Dr Monika Schmid

The people of Jamaica often respond fairly angry when their language is not considered a language but a dialect. Their outcries in which they defend their speech as a language are to be found all over the internet: on YouTube, personal blogs and so on. Linguists often call the language to be an English-lexified Creole with West African influences rather than considering it Jamaican or, as the Jamaicans call it, Jamaican Patois.

The question whether Jamaican Creole should be considered a language on its own rather than a variation on the English language is a topic that occupies many linguists. In order to take a stance, we figured it would be necessary to acquire more knowledge on the subject and thus, to become better informed about Creole languages, their development, and chances of survival, we approached Professor Dr Monika Schmid. Schmid is a researcher and teacher at the English Department of the University of Groningen, the Netherlands, and very well known for her elaborate knowledge on Language Varieties.

On the question whether she thinks that Creoles should be considered as  full languages, she promptly answers that it should be. More significantly, Schmid thinks it is not a matter of her opinion whether they should be considered as full languages, as the only counter arguments against this statement are primarily based on people’s attitudes towards the outer appearance of Creoles: if one were to listen to Creoles without investigating for example the linguistic structure of the language, Creoles often seem simplified varieties of the original language. Schmid comments that it is certainly true that Creoles appear to be poor in inflection and they show little allomorphic variation if compared to the original language, but “sometimes people feel that [Creoles] are funny or they think that the people who speak it must be a little simple minded. But I think that is not an opinion any linguist would hold.”

All languages are characterized by the fact that they are continuously changing, which eventually may lead to a complete vanquish. Most languages, however, are for most part secured from this, as their lexicon and grammatical rules are standardized and conventionalized and stored in writing. But as for Creoles – and to our particular interest this also counts for Jamaican Creole – there is often no authorized writing system existent. Is it then necessary for a language to have a writing system in order to be called a independent language? According to Professor Dr Schmid a writing system does not seem the be a requirement for a language to be called a full language. “Of the 6000 languages that exist in the word today, eighty to a hundred languages have a written code.” Professor Schmid adds that “if a language has a writing system, it will have certain characteristics, like there will emerge a standardized code. Languages that have writing systems are more resilient, so they are less in danger of language death”.

Because there are so many people opposed calling Jamaican Creole a language on its own, it can be said that it carries a low prestige. This may have a negative influence on the duration of existence of the Creole. Professor Schmid explains the importance to have a co-language in the countries where a Creole is spoken. It is very well possible that “Jamaicans know that if they want to attend college in the States, they have certain ‘aspirations’ for their education or their career. It will be very good for them that they learn not only that particular variety of English that’s on Jamaica.” In our opinion, this would then have a negative impact of the development of a Creole, as schools take advantage of the importance of the English lessons and teach in English instead of the Creole, since these “languages” are already very similar. Schmid emphasizes the important role that the people speaking the Creole have on the language development. “It really depends very much on what the people decide to do with their language and their identity.”

Apparently, Creoles are underestimated languages. When listening to the Creoles superficially they may seem simplified variations of the language of which they are derived, but genuinely these language variations are more complex than they may initially seem.  The Jamaican Creole, like many other Creoles, does not have its own writing system. This may possibly lead to a complete language death. However, a writing system is not a vital element  for a language to be called a language. Adding all of these points up, it seems that Creoles may indeed be called languages on their own. Big up uno dem!*

* Praise to all of them


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