Fri | Feb 26, 2021

COVID-19 impacted local language, says linguist

Published:Thursday | December 31, 2020 | 12:12 AMJudana Murphy/Gleaner Writer
Dr Joseph Farquharson, Coordinator of the Jamaican Language Unit based at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona.
Dr Joseph Farquharson, Coordinator of the Jamaican Language Unit based at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona.

The COVID-19 pandemic has held the greater portion of 2020 in its grip. While its impact on many sectors has been noted, an area outside of the limelight which has been impacted in the cultural arena is language, with the creation of new words and an increase in the usage of existing words and expressions.

Dr Joseph Farquharson, coordinator of the Jamaican Language Unit (JLU) at The University of the West Indies, Mona, has described the year’s language experience in Jamaica as “adaptive”.

“Languages do what speakers want them to do, and so because we had the pandemic and people needed to talk about the pandemic or deal with certain things introduced by the pandemic, they either borrow, create or re-energise words, and so I say adaptive is the word, but with the understanding that this really applies to language generally,” he told The Gleaner.

Farquharson explained that as medical professionals and scientists tried to understand the virus, it was referred to as the new or novel coronavirus disease.

“When they determined that it was a new strain [of coronavirus], it was referred to as COVID-19. We got a new word in English worldwide and various other languages,” he said.

Words used more frequently

In response to the health crisis, Farquharson noted that words such as ‘quarantine’ and ‘self-isolation’ became more frequently used.

“The general population also learnt words that existed before, but were kinda restricted to specific groups and communities. For example, the medical community may have been using a word like ‘asymptomatic’ for a very long time. Now, a lot of us know the word ‘asymptomatic’, even though we might not know what it means,” he said.

Farquharson pointed out that while there may not have been any new words added to the Jamaican language this year, the new English word, COVID-19, conformed to the pronunciation system.

Elaborating, he said that instead of COVID-19, some Jamaicans say ‘kuovi’ and ‘kuovid’, while for coronavirus, they say ‘karuona’ or ‘koruona’, according to the Cassidy system.

The JLU coordinator added that old expressions such as ‘tan a yuh yaad’ and ‘kip yuh distance’ also increased in frequency.

“This year, those phrases were used more often than in previous years. They were always there, but they now gained new importance and significance in the context of the pandemic,” he said.

The expression ‘kip’, which is most commonly used in reference to events, has been gaining ground and is also being used to refer to places or a phenomenon.

“So, you now get ‘Jamaica still a kip’ or ‘COVID still a kip’, and I’ve seen ads that are using that, too. That’s a very important change in the language that we have co-opted for the pandemic because it’s topical and you want to get the message across,” he reasoned.

The linguist explained that the pandemic also showed up inequalities in language, as during press conferences, the only spoken language was English.

Arguing that “the Government ignored the majority of the population”, the JLU, in the height of the pandemic, used their limited resources to translate advisories into Patois and made videos which were uploaded to YouTube.

Other frequently used words and phrases in Jamaica this year:



Social distancing


Community spread

Contact tracing

Flattening the curve

Patient zero