Sun | Sep 27, 2020

Nadine McLeod | Use radio to develop the J’can language and vice versa

Published:Saturday | December 7, 2019 | 12:00 AM
Nadine McLeod
So much has happened on the Jamaican media landscape over the past 81 years. Media liberalisation has resulted in a vast increase in radio stations.

Patterned off the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), traditionally, the programme structure and content of Jamaican radio were mainly British. So, too, were the voices of the presenters.

Retired and currently adjunct University of the West Indies (UWI) senior lecturer, Dr Kathryn Shields Brodber noted that on-air media personnel in the early days of Jamaican radio were mostly British or British-trained. Likewise, veteran broadcaster and former UWI lecturer Alma Mock-Yen pointed out that the “tone” of ZQI, Jamaica’s first radio station, was BBC. This would continue even after ZQI was acquired by the government and later became RJR.

However, the Jamaican language, also known as Patwa/Patois and Jamaican Creole, entered this once sacred domain of broadcasting from as early as 1940, a mere year after John Grinan introduced radio broadcasting to the island. It is not clear whether it was an on-air presenter or a caller who stirred a writer of a letter to The Gleaner’s editor to complain about someone on the Jamaica Broadcasting Station. The writer described the speaker’s talk as an attempt “to destroy and corrupt the King’s English in such a crude manner” with “patois sounding quite so bad” (The Gleaner, 1940).

Such was the sentiment of many Jamaicans at that time. Speaking the Jamaican language was frowned upon, and any parent who wanted upward mobility for his/her child would ensure that that child spoke ‘properly’. Speaking properly was tantamount to speaking English; speaking badly was synonymous with speaking the Jamaican language. The perception of the language arose from our colonial experience and continues until today.

Despite linguists explaining what a language is and why the Jamaican language would fit the criteria, some Jamaicans refuse to accept the Jamaican language as a language in its own right. They point out that many of the words used in the Jamaican language come from English and that therefore, Jamaican is not a language. These Jamaicans perhaps ignore the fact that English has borrowed heavily from Latin, French, and many other languages. But languages generally borrow from other languages. It is the nature of languages.


So much has happened on the Jamaican media landscape over the past 80 years. Media liberalisation has resulted in a vast increase in radio stations. Jamaicans have become more culturally aware, and many of them are accepting of their language. The Jamaican language is now commonplace on Jamaican radio. However, the formal formats of radio, such as news and current-affairs programmes have maintained English as their primary medium of communication.

One exception is seen with a newscast in Jamaican and English called ‘Braadkyaas ‘Jamiekan’, on NewsTalk 93 FM. This is not new, IRIE FM experimented with presenting the news in the Jamaican language, as well as its predecessor, Radio Central, in 1983. However, those attempts were short-lived for various reasons.

To say the Jamaican language is not used at all in formal radio formats on more popular stations would be far from the truth as the language plays a subordinate role in these styles of programming. It is usually placed in the mouths of speakers such as the wailing mother whose son was shot dead by police or the rural resident who has not had water for two decades. It is also placed in the mouths of speakers whose English competence is unquestionable but for the specific reason to connect with the common man.

It is yet to be placed in the mouths of the news presenters of the more popular news packages. That would cause quite a stir among many Jamaicans, some of whom are themselves speakers of the language. I believe that what should cause an even bigger commotion among Jamaicans is the fact that there are monolingual and near monolingual Creole speakers among us who are possibly not quite understanding the news or parts thereof. The 2007 Language Competence survey of Jamaica found that 36.5 per cent of those surveyed were monolingual speakers of the Jamaican language.

This may be a surprise to some people, but not me. In my life as a former television news reporter, I have interviewed people who could not understand English words that bilingual speakers took for granted.

I recall an interview between a videographer and a farmer after flooding in Clarendon. The farmer called for the authorities to fix the drain close to her farm. The videographer asked her what had contributed to the flooding. The farmer paused then said, “A doan andastan yu.” The videographer rephrased the question, and only then did he get an answer from the farmer. Albeit a small example of the misunderstanding of one word, it shows that words that may be taken for granted by many people are not understood by others. This is just a microcosm of the situation.

This could mean that valuable public information delivered in English could be lost on some people. On this basis, I support the Jamaican Language Unit in its thrust to make the Jamaican language official alongside English. This would make Jamaica a bilingual country, meaning that both languages would be used to present all public information, including the news.


While we consider granting the Jamaican language official status alongside English, let us elevate the conversation. I believe that this move would present an opportunity for the media to be used to develop the language and vice versa. Take a look at the Somali experience of 1943, for example, when the first frequent broadcast of world news in the Somali language started. Since the Somali language was never spoken on air in this format before then, it created some problems or opportunities, depending on which lens you are using. Among them was how to explain terms such as ‘hydroelectric dams’, ‘short wave’, and ‘aesthetics’, which were not in the Somali language.

Poets, storytellers, folklorists, and other culturally minded people were asked to assist with these words. Many of them were illiterate and monolingual Somali language speakers. It was not uncommon for broadcasters to explain the meaning of an English or Italian word so that a Somali equivalent could be found. This not only assisted with the development of the language but also with improving the status of the language.

We do not have to go as far as Somalia for solutions. In Curaçao, Papiamentu, a Creole language spoken by the majority of the population in that country, is used extensively in the media. Papiamentu was made official in 2007.

It is time for Jamaicans to remove the shame and discrimination from the Jamaican language. Let us make Jamaica an officially bilingual country. #makejamaicanofficial #josdwiit.

Nadine McLeod is a broadcast journalist and lecturer at the University of Technology, Jamaica. She is also a doctoral candidate in communications studies at CARIMAC at The University of the West Indies, Mona. Her research area is media and language. Email feedback to