From Ireland to Jamaica

The English language has an amazing variety of accents, not just internationally, but within different regions of countries. One of the most recognisable, and oft-imitated, is the Jamaican accent. And of course people often imitate it badly. And when they do, a common remark is that they sound more Irish than Jamaican. Well, that’s no coincidence…

Extensive Irish emigration to the Caribbean began in the 17th century, for a variety of reasons. Many Irish people had their land confiscated during the Nine-Years War, and the Irish Rebellion in 1641, and chose to travel west. Others had less choice, and  were sent to the Caribbean as prisoners of war, to work as indentured servants. Similarly, many fled west after their lands were confiscated after the 1652 Act of Settlement of Ireland, which saw many Irish displaced from their lands, which were given to British people to settle (well, resettle). And though it’s true that a great many Irish worked alongside African slaves in the Caribbean, it should also be pointed out that the Irish still enjoyed some privilege by being white, and a small number of plantation overseers would undoubtedly have been Irish. While the Irish were discriminated against, they never suffered from slavery as much as the African Caribbeans.

The result of this migration is that Irish-Jamaicans are the second-largest reported ethnic group in Jamaica, behind Jamaicans of African origin. It’s estimated that about 25% of the population have shared Irish and African descent. And this is evident in the Jamaican accent. One of the most obvious shared characteristic between Irish and Jamaican accents is the pronunciation of th as t: Shake dat ting! While not every Irish accent pronounces it that way, it’s still quite common. Both accents also feature short a sounds in words like car and bar. The Jamaican accent also often features a falling and then rising intonation at the end of words and sentences. This is a common feature of accents from the south of Ireland, in places such as County Kerry and Cork. This may well be due to the fact that the last port of call for British ships on expeditions across the Atlantic was usually in Cork, where local Irishmen would be brought aboard for support, either voluntarily or by force.

While the Jamaican accent is a good example of the influence of the Irish accent on the Caribbean, the tiny island of Monsterrat, “the Emerald Isle of the Caribbean” demonstrates it more clearly. In this clip (from a modern Irish Irish-language programme featuring a clip from a 1976 Irish English-language programme, confusingly), the accent of the local people hasn’t changed much from the West Cork accent of either their ancestors, or their ancestors’ former masters; or, frankly, both:

 

While the circumstances which led to African and Irish people being transported to the Caribbean are tragic, it’s still inspiring that unique cultures, and a unique way of speaking, could develop from them. Languages evolve and survive from sharing and blending, and I think cultures do too. It’s important to remember that in these times when so many people are insistent on keeping people separate.

Slán mon!

8 thoughts on “From Ireland to Jamaica

  1. I drill my students on the pronunciation of the two ‘th’ sounds, then tell them that many native English speakers don’t use them! (specifically mentioning Ireland and Jamaica). (One student from Pakistan knew about a Jamaican accent from a cricket commentator.)

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