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This paper analyzes variation in the marking of number on plural nouns in mesolectal Jamaican Patwa (JP) – one of only a few variable features for which comparable quantitative data exist from Atlantic Creole and African American English speech communities (Patrick 2004, Rickford 2006). Earlier theoretical claims about variation in JP, and Atlantic English-related Creoles generally, are found wanting (Alleyne 1980, Dijkhoff 1983, Mufwene 1986, James 2001, Tagliamonte et al 1997). Many previous empirical studies lacked a valid, sufficiently nuanced taxonomy of surface forms which can reliably map onto the level of reference, and permit reorganization at a more abstract level capable of allowing generalizations.

This analysis considers the choice between plural –z and zero in regular nouns in light of some of the major known potential linguistic constraints – syntactic, semantic, pragmatic and phonological. (In this analysis, marking with post-nominal –dem is considered only as a constraint influencing the choice between –z and zero, partly because it has recently been argued not to mark plural, and partly because its conditions of (co-)occurrence require a separate analysis.) Two corpora are first analysed separately, then combined to form the largest database yet studied for number-marking in any single Atlantic English Creole, African American Diaspora (Singler 1989, Tagliamonte et al 1997), or African American Vernacular English-speaking community (Rickford 1990, 2006, Rowe 2005).

Results are compared with other contemporary Creoles, African American Vernacular English (AAVE) and African American Diaspora varieties. Conclusions do not match the ‘Creole pattern’ put forth in earlier literature, and often used as a basis for historical conclusions concerning AAVE and Creole genesis.

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