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An Annotated Bibliography of Rastafarian Speech (Rasta Talk)



The Origin of Jamaican Creole

The speech of Jamaican Rastafarians is a variant of Jamaican Creole (JC). JC is an English-based creole that is a product of colonialism. The Spaniards were the first to colonize Jamaica, but had little direct influence upon development of JC. When British colonialists ousted them, the Spaniards’ African slaves escaped into the mountains where they retained much of their African culture and some of their African languages. The British brought more slaves from Africa, but were unable to recapture the escapees, known as Maroons, and so instead maintained a negotiated peace settlement with them. The Maroons reinforced the African influences in JC that the African slaves of the British brought. Maroons also influenced (though not always directly) various Afrocentric political and religious movements, including the Rastafarians. Maroon retention of African culture has generally been seen as positive by these movements despite the Maroons’ agreement with the British to return all newly escaped slaves. Other aspects of the Caribbean milieu (e.g., French, Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, Hindi and Amerindian languages) have also influenced JC. The most recent language additions to JC are primarily from the Rastafarians (Roberts, 1988: 43), who besides adding a few Amharic words, have made many linguistic innovations.

The Origin and Nature of Rasta Talk

The language of the Rastafarians is known as Rasta Talk or Dread Talk by non-Rastafarians, and as Iyaric (“I” + “Amharic”) or Livalect (“live” + “dialect”) by Rastafarians. In Jamaica, it exists as one of a number of registers of JC that indicate social standing and/or situation. Rasta Talk was initiated by the sect known as the Youth Black Faith, founded in 1949 (Chevannes, 1978: 173, 189-190). Nearly all Jamaicans speak or at least understand several registers of JC (Roberts, 1988: 82). Rasta Talk is not spoken by non-Rastafarians, but many words from Rasta Talk have entered other registers in JC; this is mainly due to the international popularity of reggae music and its linkage with Rastafarianism. Rastafarians had little or no influence upon JC prior to the 1960s.

Rasta Talk was initially intended to be a secret language to counter societal oppression (Chevannes, 1978: 190). Pollard (1986: 157-158) explains, “It seems that the language was intended to be secret.... [ellipsis hers] This particular intention was, however, short-lived: the language of Rasta soon moved into the youth culture of Jamaica.” JC and other creoles have themselves functioned as languages of secrecy.

The linguistic modifications of Rasta Talk are both numerous and dynamic. Linguistic modification is seen as a necessity by Rastafarians because JC is a product of colonialism and because JC is viewed as an inadequate vehicle for their religion.

Rasta Talk has four types of linguistic innovations: 1) Redefinitions of existing words 2) merging of existing words into new words 3) Substitution of “I” for the initial syllable of words (these are inherently benedictive) 4) Substitution of meaning for existing JC words. (Pollard, 1983: 49; 1986: 161).

See also the Amazon Rastafarian Store.


Bibliography

Web-Based Dictionaries

Several Web-based dictionaries are available, however they do not distinguish between Jamaican Creole and phrases of Rastafarian origin.

Primary Material: Rasta Talk

General

Secondary Material

Jamaican Speech and Culture

Other Publications on Rastafarianism (unreviewed)


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Last modified April 26, 2005.