The global spread of Jamaican Creole: The sociolinguistics of globalization and the sociolinguistics of performance

Jamaican Creole is the local vernacular of Jamaica and coexists with the island’s emerging local standard variety, Jamaican English. Jamaican Creole has increasingly become a symbol of national identity after the island’s independence in 1962 but a conservative linguistic ideology which discriminates Jamaican Creole as inferior to English has been retained. Despite persisting efforts by Jamaican linguists to enhance the de jure status of Jamaican Creole, English remains the sole official language of Jamaica. However, in his World System of Englishes Mair (2013: 262-265) postulates that Jamaican Creole has become globally relevant as a super-central variety while the importance of Jamaican English is regionally confined to the Caribbean. Most studies on the global spread of Jamaican Creole have focused on language use by native speakers in diaspora communities like London (Sebba 1993) or Toronto (Hinrichs 2011). In their Cyber-Creole research project Mair and his colleagues extent this scope to the use of Jamaican Creole in globalized computer mediated communication (e.g. Moll 2015). However, the main driving force behind the global spread of Jamaican Creole beyond Jamaican diaspora communities and online fora is the international success of Jamaican reggae and dancehall music. Most studies on the globalization of reggae and dancehall have taken a cultural studies perspective (e.g. Alleyne 2008; Cooper 2004) while there are hardly any sociolinguistic investigations of the transnational impact or appropriation of popular Jamaican music (e.g. Winer 1990).
    This project investigates the global spread of Jamaican Creole by analyzing its appropriation in specific reggae and dancehall contexts by non-native speakers from different European speech communities. The project follows Pennycook’s (2007: 58-77) performative agenda by focusing on the performance of Jamaican Creole on the basis of a constructionist approach to language and identity. While Pennycook mainly focusses on rap lyrics to analyze the transnational linguistic flows of Hip Hop, this study advances a contextualized analysis by taking into account the actual speech performance as well as the immediate context (e.g. the space or the audience’s perception of the performance). I analyze the performance of internationally successful European reggae artists in music videos, live performances, interviews, or documentaries. Artists include Gentleman from Germany, Alborosie from Italy, Soom T from Scotland and Stand High Patrol from France. Furthermore, the appropriation of Jamaican Creole by non-native speakers is studied in two German online reggae radio shows: Scampylama’s Serendiptiy Selection ( and Jugglerz Dancehall Radio ( The project also includes ethnographic investigations of dub, reggae, and dancehall events organized by different local soundsystems in Münster, Germany.
    This project aims to show how locally stigmatized vernaculars are spread worldwide mainly through subcultures “from below” in very different ways than prestige varieties, which are transported transnationally “from above” (Preisler 1999: 241) through education or the global capitalist market economy. As Jamaican Creole is spread globally in reggae and dancehall subculture it is often reduced from a fully functional language to a stylistic resource of the performance of a reggae or dancehall identity. Cultural appropriation is shown to be a main driving force for the global spread of Jamaican Creole: the appropriation of Jamaican Creole by non-native speakers in reggae and dancehall performances is often caught in between simplification, exploitation, and homage. On a theoretical level, this project adds a more context sensitive approach to Pennycook’s (2007) performative agenda and calls for a combination of the sociolinguistics of globalization with the sociolinguistics of performance.


  • Alleyne, Mike. 2008. Globalization and commercialization of Caribbean music. Popular Music History 3 (3), 247-273.
  • Cooper, Carolyn. 2004. Sound clash: Jamaican dancehall culture at large. New York: Palgrave.
  • Hinrichs, Lars. 2011. The sociolinguistics of diaspora. Language in the Jamaican Canadian community. Texas Linguistics Forum 54, 1-22.
  • Mair, Christian. 2013. The World System of Englishes. English World-Wide 34 (3), 253-278.
  • Moll, Andrea. 2015. Jamaican Creole goes web: Sociolinguistic styling and authenticity in a digital ‘yaad.’ Amsterdam: Benjamins.
  • Pennycook, Alastair. 2007. Global Englishes and transcultural flows. London: Routledge.
  • Preisler, B. (1999). Functions and forms of English in a European EFL country. In Tony Bex & Richard J. Watts (eds.), Standard English: The widening debate, pp.237–267. London: Routledge.
  • Sebba, Mark. 1993. London Jamaican: Language systems in interaction. London: Longman.
  • Winer, Lise. 1990. Intelligibility of reggae lyrics in North America. Dread ina Babylon. English World-Wide 11 (1), 33-58.

Heteroglossic Party Flyers

Party flyers for reggae events in Münster, Germany show how Jamaican Creole is used in Münster’s reggae subculture. These flyers are on display in cafés, bars, music clubs, and especially at reggae events. In this way they are part of the linguistic landscape (i.e. “the visibility and salience of languages on public and commercial signs in a given territory or region,” Landry and Bourhis 1997: 25) in specific spaces in Münster. Flyers often make use of Jamaican, Caribbean or black (diasporic) images to promote reggae and dancehall events in Münster as authentic outside of a Caribbean or black diasporic environment: for example, Flyer 1 Back uses the pan-African colors (i.e. green, yellow, red) and on Flyer 2 there is an image of a young black female in front of a huge soundsystem speaker box.

Flyer Front And Back From Outernational Dubbers
Flyer 1 - Front and back from Outernational Dubbers
© Triptychon Münster

Flyers combine Jamaican Creole, Dread Talk (i.e. a register of Jamaican Creole spoken by Rastafarians, Pollard 2000), English, and German in creative ways. For example, Flyer 1 uses plays on words typical for Dread Talk, such as “outernational” (derived from international) or “fulfilled” (derived from filled), and the Dread Talk pronoun “you & you” (in analogy to the highly salient Dread Talk pronoun I & I). On Flyer1 Back and Flyer 3 there are two instances where spelling also reflects Jamaican Creole pronunciation: the article the is spelled as “da,” reflecting word initial TH-stopping in Jamaican Creole. Individual lexical items typical of Jamaican Creole or a specific dancehall register also mark the flyers: Flyer 3 uses the Jamaican Creole preposition “pon” (on) and on Flyer 1 Back there is Jamaican Creole “nuff” (plenty, derived from enough) and “selecta” (the DJ playing the music). German is marginal on these flyers: the only German word on Flyer 1 is the name of the soundsystem Kunterbunt (colorful; chaotic; diverse). English is the dominant language on the flyers while the few but salient Jamaican Creole and Dread Talk features mark the flyers as part of a global reggae and dancehall subculture.

Flyers 2 and 3
Flyer 2 (front): Lion Paw and flyer 3 (front): Reggae Attack
© Triptychon Münster

The flyers can also be regarded as examples for “grassroots literacy” (Blommaert 2008: 7): the writing does not correspond to standard orthography and ‘writing right’ as the flyers disregard spelling conventions, rules of punctuation, or capitalization and reflect Jamaican Creole pronunciations – or more generally orality. However, in contrast to Blommaert’s examples these flyers are not produced “by people who are not fully inserted into elite economies of information, language and literacy” (2008: 7). In addition, almost all of the reggae/dancehall flyers from Münster are professionally designed and printed. Hence, I classify this writing practice as planned “grassroots literacy,” which aims to reflect Jamaican signs promoting dancehall and reggae events. Dray (2012: 177-120) shows that these Jamaican reggae/dancehall flyers and posters (which I see as the target of appropriation for the German flyers) also combine Standard English and Jamaican Creole in creative ways often ignoring standard writing conventions.
    This brief analysis shows that Jamaican Creole is spread globally in the context of reggae and dancehall in an entire reggae package, which in the case of flyers includes Jamaican Creole, Dread Talk, images of Jamaicanness, Caribbeanness or more generally blackness, orality, as well as a rejection of writing conventions. The flyers from Münster rearticulate Jamaican reggae/dancehall signs but at the same time also localize these Jamaican practices. This process results in heteroglossic (Bakhtin 1981: 291) party flyers where different languages, voices, and images co-exist.


  • Bakhtin, Michail. 1981. The dialogic imagination: Four essays. Austin: UT Press.
  • Blommaert, Jan. 2008. Grassroots literacy. Writing identity and voice in central Africa. London: Routledge.
  • Dray, Susan. 2010. Ideological struggles on signage in Jamaica. In Adam Jaworski & Crispin Thurlow (eds.), Semiotic landscapes. Language, image, space, pp.102-122. London: Continuum.
  • Pollard, Velma. 200. Dread Talk: The language of Rastafari. Barbados: Canoe Press.

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