Words of African Origin in Jamaican Patois


The screenshot shown above is from an excellent dissertation on the African origin of words within Jamaican Patois: “The African Lexis in Jamaican: Its Linguistic and Sociohistorical Significance” (Farquharson, 2012). It contains an extensive list of “289 words whose African etymologies have been fairly well established” to be found in chapter 5 (starting from page 94) and also with more detailed analysis in the Appendix B (starting from page 229). For an overview of African language groups mentioned in above breakdown see also the map section.  It’s important to note that only the “mainstream” version of Jamaican Patois is being considered; the more restricted and localized versions of Maroon, Kumina and Nago speech are left out of the final count of Africanisms.

The author of this work also maintains a Facebook page “The Jamaican National Dictionary.” where new additions can be reported as this is very much an ongoing research effort:


In this blogpost i will be highlighting a couple of the main findings from his research but he discusses many more intriguing topics inside his study.  In upcoming blogposts i will try to combine his conclusions with other types of evidence on the African ethnic origins of Jamaicans. This kind of linguistic research for socalled Creole languages is highly important for uncovering the specific ethnic African roots of Afro-diasporic populations. Creole languages being spoken across most of the West-Indies, the Guyana’s, Belize and also incl. the Gullah language of the USA and the Palenquero language of Colombia. But also across the Atlantic Creole languages are spoken in Cape Verde, Guinea Bissau, São Tomé & Principe and the Indian Ocean island groups (see this link for a more complete overview).

Just as a disclaimer i’d like to point out right away that there’s plenty of caveats when it comes to correlating cultural/linguistical influences with ancestral/genetical legacy in presentday populations. Depending on the context it could be mostly language shift instead of demic diffusion. These processes can be very complex but in simplifying terms linguistical influence often occurs without any major corresponding genetic impact. So as always it’s wise to not jump to conclusions.

For Afro-diasporic populations it’s often assumed that the very first generations of African slaves to arrive in the 1500’s-1600’s-early 1700’s, the socalled charter generation,  would have created a creolized standard or mold to which newcomers would have to adjust during their “seasoning” process. However it’s also recognized that the very last generations of Africans to arrive (in the 1800’s) would usually be better placed to retain some of their specific ethnic cultural patterns. So really the cultural/linguistical retentions found among the Afro-Diaspora can sometimes be relating to ethnic groups who would not per se be the most numerous during the entire slave trade period but were only prominent during the critical stages of the creation process of Afro-diasporic culture.  Ethnic groups without dominant cultures in a New World setting might still have had plenty of descendants who just blended into the creolizing mainstream only retaining/copying Africanisms from other ethnic groups.

The thing is there’s an ongoing research into the African lexicon of Atlantic Creoles with new findings still being made and also new insights being forwarded because of the growing valuable participation of native speakers nowadays. It’s pretty much parallel to the genetic research into the African origins of Afro-descendants. So it’s useful, in my opinion at least, to make some crosscomparisons and be openminded about any possible implications.

the search for Africanisms is a search for our roots, a search for self, beyond the spatio-temporal sphere of the plantation. This being the case, the prevailing nature of the interest among ordinary Jamaicans is purely ideological, which if not balanced by careful academic study runs the risk of constructing skewed versions of history.” (Farquharson, 2012, p.3)

“Possibilities, no matter how many, do not add up to a probability; probabilities no matter how many, do not add up to a certainty’” (Cassidy, 1986, p. 138).

Ghana is more than just Akan speakers

ghana ethnic breakdown

Breakdown of languages spoken in Ghana

A main outcome of Farquharson 2012 would be: “The thesis assigns fewer Àkán etymologies than most previous works, and proposes that many of the Àkán words in Jamaican appear to be post-formative.”.

Which might surprise many people but according to the author:

contrary to academic and popular views in the literature, speakers of Àkán were not the most dominant ethnic group in Jamaica.The Gold Coast was Jamaica’s chief supply area for enslaved Africans for short periods in the eighteenth century, but it did not hold that dominance during what is held here to be the foundational period for the development of Jamaican (1655–1700) nor for much of the rest of the period of slavery.” (Farquharson, 2012, p.41)

Indeed according to the date of first documented appearance it seems Ghanaian influence was most pronounced in the 1700’s/1800’s and not the formative period (late 1600’s/early 1700’s). Below table taken from Farquharson (2012).African lexicon in Jamaica (2012) (African regions distribution + centuries of first mention)

This is also confirmed by data from the Slavevoyages Database, showing imports from the Gold Coast never surpassing 1/3 of total slave imports into Jamaica and clearly peaking around the mid 1700’s and not earlier when it was the Bight of Benin where most slaves were coming from, while in the later period it was instead Bight of Biafra which was the main supplier of slaves to Jamaica.

JAM -  embarkation regions  percentages 50years period

JAM -  embarkation regions  numbers 50years period

Evenso a broadly defined “Gold Coast” or Ghana is still emerging as contributing a clear majority of the lexical items to Jamaican Patois. Below table taken from Farquharson (2012).

African lexicon in Jamaica (2012) (African regions distribution)As seen in the first chart of this blogpost (fig.6.1) the Gold Coast contribution is however not only consisting of Akan derived words but also in addition the Gbe (meant to represent mostly Ewe in this study, see p.345), Guang and Ga languages were influential on Jamaican Patois.

This is the first time we are getting a very clear picture of the lexical contribution made by ethnolinguistic groups other than Àkán. The figures for single source etymology items from Guang, Gã, and Gbè are admittedly low in comparison to those from Àkán, but the importance to Jamaican culture of the entities to which these words point asks us to rethink the previous views which link numbers of items contributed to overall impact on the culture. For example, the Jamaican name for the very popular flat, round cassava bread (bami ), and the name that was applied to the person who led the singing while slaves worked (boma) are both from Gã.” (Farquharson, 2012. p.131)

This outcome can be confirmed also by a thorough study of :

  • Ghanaian demographics: Ghana being an multi-ethnic country, as seen in the ethno-linguistical breakdown above and also this map and others in the Lower Guinea section).
  • History of Ashanti Empire building & slave trade practices (often taking captives from non-Akan groups, see this map)
  • Evidence of Gold Coast slave ethnicity; eventhough the term “Coromantee” is most frequent (and often just assumed to be all Akan speaking) also “Chamba”, “Wankyi”/”Wawee”, “Succo” are being mentioned with varying frequency, see also this link for Anglo-Caribbean slave registers).

Congolese linguistical influence was greater than Igbo influence?

A second main outcome of the thesis is about the significance of Central African and particularly Kikongo influence on Jamaican Patois (excluding Kumina speech!). According to figure 6.1, shown on top of this blogpost, there’s 33 words of Congolese origin in Jamaican Patois versus “only” 9 words of Igbo origin.

This seemingly prominent Congolese retention is a bit surprising comparing the number of slave imports from both Central Africa and the Bight of Biafra. As the author puts it:

“Following the same line of reasoning, we would have expected a greater number of items coming into Jamaican from languages spoken in the Bight of Biafra given the high number of Africans drawn from this region in the eighteenth century. However, in no period do the demographic figures for Africans originating in the Bight of Biafra show any strong correlation with lexical contribution. This is possibly due to cultural factors that are not yet obvious.” (Farquharson, 2012. p.144)

We do have to take into consideration that it’s only  the number of lexical items we’re talking about and not for example linguistical influence on other domains such as syntax, phonetics and morphology. Plus it might also be true that despite a smaller number of words that can be attibuted to Igbo, the ones that were identified might have an increased cultural significance. As the author suggest more research is needed, but this finding of a possibly somewhat subdued or less recognizable linguistical/cultural influence of the Igbo might also be important for other parts of the Afro-Diaspora where the Igbo were prominent in numbers, such as the USA.

In below charts taken from the Slave Voyages Database we can see that the Bight of Biafra has a clear edge on Central Africa and even the Gold Coast. Although this only goes for the documented slavevoyages, according to total estimates (last chart shown) the Gold Coast would still be a slightly bigger area of origin for Jamaica.

JAM -  embarkation regions - percentagesJAM -  embarkation regions - numbers

JAM -  embarkation regions - numbers (Estimates)

Similarities with Bajan and Sranan

A third intriguing finding of Farquharson (2012) is about the very first appearance of Jamaican Patois in the late 1600’s and its connections with the Sranan language from Surinam and the Bajan one from Barbados, both of them earlier plantation colonies than Jamaica. I’ll just provide some quotes from the thesis as well as a fascinating chart comparing the naming of days in all three languages (likely based on a proto-Akan system?). It all hints at some remarkable founding effects, disproportionate to the initial numbers of the first “charter” generations of Jamaican slaves being transferred from both Barbados and Surinam.

In the late 1660s and the early 1670s the linguistic profile of the island changed again when planters from Suriname settled in western Jamaica with their slaves who spoke Proto-Sranan. Proto-Sranan is an off-shoot of Proto-Bajan but Sranan is innovative in its use of de as imperfective aspect marker where older varieties of Bajan and Kittitian employ da. Jamaican once used both da and de with the same function but the former has been reduced in most central and eastern dialects to a. The variant de is restricted to the western parishes of Jamaica which suggests a Surinamese origin. (Farquharson, 2012, p.26)

 “If the reader remains uneasy about the ability of a small group of seasoned slaves to set the linguistic pace in Jamaica, then s/he should recall that Sranan survived in Suriname after Suriname was given to the Dutch although only a few ‘old’ Sranan speaking slaves remained, they were quickly outnumbered by fresh imports arriving dirrecly from Africa (cf. Smith, 2001, p. 54). This is even more remarkable when we recall that the number of ‘old’ plantation slaves left in Suriname in this period was eventually split through marronage to form the Saramaccan tribe.” (Farquharson, 2012, p.28)

We will recall from Table 7.6 that the Jamaican system was almost identical to the systems found in Bajan and Sranan. This sort of consistency militates against multiple origins for the Caribbean systems. The evidence suggests that the system was passed from Bajan to Sranan, and from both of them to Jamaica. The most likely timing of this transmission would have been around the last quarter of the seventeenth century when settlers from Barbados and Suriname relocated to Jamaica. (Farquharson, 2012, p.164)


African lexicon in Jamaica (2012) (African day names New World)



– Farquharson, J.T. (2012).  “The African Lexis in Jamaican: Its Linguistic and Sociohistorical Significance”, thesis. (link to online PDF file)


2 gedachten over “Words of African Origin in Jamaican Patois

  1. Hi, I found this image about the number of slaves imported in Jamaica, I thought it might be interessed you:

    It may explain why Kikongo influence is greater than Igbo in the patois or also the high Benin/Togo score in Jamaicans dna results

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you very much Geoffrey! I recognize that table, it’s taken from Philip D. Curtin’s “The Atlantic Slave Trade A Census”, first published in 1969. His book has been very important for Slave Trade studies however it has also become outdated in some respects. In the last two decades or so the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade (TAST) a.k.a. Slave Voyages database has become the standard reference for any serious scholarship on slave trade statistics. That’s why i used screenshots from their website in this blogpost. Actually the differences are not that drastic in this case as good data on Jamaica’s slave trade has been available for a long time already.

      Concerning the relative contributions of the Igbo versus the Bakongo in Jamaican Patois it’s still a bit puzzling that the Bight of Biafra share is greater than the Central African one in slave trade to Jamaica. Also when going by Curtin’s estimates (28,4% versus 17,5%). Only in the very early time periods of 1655-1701 & 1702-1725 is the Central African share bigger than the one from Bight of Biafra. Then again this might very well have been a crucial formative period for the development of Jamaican Patois.


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