The Historical and Culture Aspects of Jamaican Patois
December 1, 2009
The official language of Jamaica is Jamaican Standard English. The true Jamaican language that was developed on the island does not have an official name. It is sometimes called Patois, Creole, Black English Vernacular or ungrammatical English (Barrett 143-145). The language originally developed as a pidgin. This is not a native language—it is as second language for everyone who speaks it. Creole evolves from a pidgin when the pidgin becomes the first speaking language for all or some of the speakers. It then becomes the language of the community with children growing up speaking it, seeing the world and increasing their knowledge in creole. No country uses creole as an official language in education yet what makes it special is its history (Sebba 2002). The combination of English and African languages is not unusual. This blend of language referred to in many different names but in this paper, it will be referred to as Patois. The language reflects the struggles of slavery and ancestry from Africa as well as the European colonization and influence throughout history on the island of Jamaica. The language, despite not being the official language, has come to represent the people, the culture, history and struggles of the lives of many Jamaicans. Despite the worldwide use of English, Patois continues to remain a pivotal element in preserving traditions and past in Jamaica.
Sometimes called a bastardization of English, Jamaican Patois is in fact a linguistic system separate from English with distinguishing factors in its lose structure, popularity and roots in slavery (McLaren 2009)(Chacon 2001). Patois comes from French origin meaning “rough speech” and usually carries a negative connotation (Gladwell 1994). Also called African English, the language of the Jamaican people began to develop in the 1600’s in Jamaica with the slave trade—the mix of the European cultures and African created Creole (Gladwell 1994). The slaves were divided into groups deliberately without a common language to prevent revolt. The slaves began to learn pidgin in order to communicate with each other and their masters. The children grew up in this life, learned pidgin from their parents as their first language and it evolved from pidgin to creole (Sebba 2002). The African language of Ashanti from West Africa (Niger and Congo) was also the location where most of the Africans were taken as slaves to the Americas (Collins 425-462).
Creole is created all over the world as a natural way that languages evolve. They are not primitive, but reveal the state of mind of the people in society (Collins 425-462). During slavery and plantation days as well as after emancipation, there were many variations of Patois being spoken (Kuppens 43-55). These languages show what develops when widely different backgrounds are forced together and have to communicate.
To provide a little background on Jamaica as a country, it was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1492 and then taken over by Britain in 1655 where it was a plantation economy of sugar, cocoa and coffee. The total area of the island is 10,991 sq. km. with 2,825,928 people 91.2% of which are black, 6.2% are mixed and 2.6% are other or unknown. With a life expectancy of 73.53 years and 2.25 children born per woman the country is relatively healthy and well established. The literacy rate is 87.9% and part of the reason for this number is the conflict between Jamaican Standard English and Patois. It is a commonwealth of Britain and has a constitutional parliamentary democracy. The GDP per capita (the average salary a person lives on in a year) is $8,600 and 14.8% of the population are below the poverty line ("Jamaica," 2009).
The official language of Jamaica is Jamaican Standard English. However, most of the population speaks a different language—that of Patois. English is understood (if not spoken) all over the island but understanding Patois as a visitor is much more challenging. There is a debate about making Patois another national language. With this debate comes the conflict of which language is better with Afro-Jamaican Patois as one extreme and standard English as another (Adams 1-65). Patois has been described as ungrammatical spoken by the uneducated (Barrett 143-145). Jamaican Standard English is the language of those who govern and come from privilege and has become an indicator of social class while Jamaican Patois is the first language of many and later they may learn English as a language. English is the language of education, religion (institutional not ethnic), commerce and government while Patois is the language in which stories are told and passed down orally and many songs and literature written in (Justus 39-51).
Children born in rural parts of the country learn Patois from their parents usually in a monolingual home. At age six, they go to school where they are taught exclusively in English. Starting at age 10, speaking in Jamaican Standard English is a mark of social class, achievement and potential. There is universal education through primary school for all Jamaicans. Those who continue in school, increase their proficiency in English while those who stop school will most likely go back to speaking Patois and use that for the rest of their life (Snider 2 December 2009). Speakers of Patois use it because their parents did and sometimes they are unable to advance in their education so they continue speaking the language of their society. There are standards in society of when and where each language is used; children learn this very quickly in order to prevent social embarrassment. English is used for business and work (including international agreements and affairs) while Patois is used for at home and social interactions (Chacon 2001). All Jamaicans generally understand Patois, it illustrates the condition of Jamaican people, distinguishes the country from Europe and expresses the beliefs of the people: identity, race and protest. An example of social rules of when to use English and when to communicate in Patois is illustrated here with Mary (the mother) and her daughter Charlotte:
Mary: Yes mam. dem pikni diffarant dees deys yunno. (yes, madam .. these children are
different these days you know).
Mary: Dem baan big ... dem grow faas faas ... de world change up ... I glad (them born
big... them grow fast fast. the world change up ... I am glad) ... glad Chatti like she
iz . . Chatti tel Joyce what hu lern a skool tide. (Charlotte like she is. . Charlotte
tell Joyce what you learn at school today).
Charlotte: (rather slowly and enunciating every syllable) I learn bout Marcus Garvey,
our national hero.
Barbara and Fay: (anxious to join in the exchange) Yes . . yes, we learn bout Garvey.
Mary: What I tel yu ...
Jamaican school children
Those who feel it will be costly for them to associate with those who are less educated and fortunate than them, will be less likely to maintain social standard (of speaking Patois in informal contexts). They also are very concerned with the “whiteness” of their speech. Jamaicans who hope to elevate themselves in society but have no access to wealth of social class sometimes deny the ability to speak and understand Patois (Justus 39-51). The two times when it is acceptable to use Patois is for songs/folklore and songs (either traditional or modern).
All Creole has similar grammatical structure, vocabulary, sound and syntax that come from roots in African language (Gladwell 1994). The use of only one tense reflects the Niger-Congo roots of languages where they do not have the aspect of time either (hence no past or future tense)(McLaren 97-110). The structure of Patois has no standard method for writing the language (Adams 1-65). Writing the actual language of Patois becomes very confusing because of the variations in spelling. Often Jamaican children are taught to spell and write how they speak and this is one of the reasons they struggle in writing English (Problem with Patois is in Writing It 2004). As Jamaican is spelled phonetically and English words are spelled with a standard, there is a huge contrast when they are put together (Adams 1-65). Words can also vary in meaning and spelling from different areas but the more people begin to get used to writing Patois, there will be more regulation on subjects of grammar and verbs (Chacon 2001).
Dem walk—they walked
Him belly—his belly
Mi kick—I kicked
Some of the ways that Patois is written include consonants switching sometimes (film to flim), adding another consonant (fishing turns to fishnin) or letters replace eachother (handle to hanggl). Letters are also dropped in combination with “s” (skin turns to ‘kin). There is no “TH” sound in the language so “thick” becomes “tick”. Plurals are also implied or understood and the singular form of the noun is both plural and singular (one foot, two feet would be one foot, two foot). The suffix for plurals of “s” does not exist and when a plural is needed, “dem” is used (the girls are coming is said as di gyal-dem a come). There is usually no use of adverbs by adding “ly”, instead it is just the same word (isn’t the child quick? Would be said as “di pikny quick, eeh?). The pronouns are also set up differently than most other romance languages, not just English (Adams 1-65).
Mi, I (me, I)
Yu, uno (you, you all)
Im (he/she, her/him, it animate)
I’, it, hit (it, inanimate)
Dread talk also called “Rasta talk”, “soul language” or “ghetto language” is a vocabulary that was created to meet needs of Rastas in society. With Rastafarianism spreading to different countries, innovation, adaptation, translation and integration with other languages is creating change. It has spread through Jamaican culture and around the world. Through music, the language and philosophy of the Rastafari have been spread globally. In the Rasta culture, oral language is used to transfer “doctrinal and life matters”. The powerful rhymes and rhythms of music have passed the message of the Rastafari (Pollard, and Davis 59-73). The use of “I and I” has had an impact on Jamaican language as well as literature written telling stories or events (McLaren 97-110). It replaces "him," she," "we," "you," and "me” and uses “I and I” to recognize that the community of the Rastafari is all around and then gives praise and acknowledgement to the Almighty. The Rastafari believe that the sounds of words have power so they have altered words from English that mean the same thing, but are different. “Understand” was changed to “overstand” because they do not comprehend the “under” part of the word. “Appreciate” turned to “apprecilove” because the “ate” part sounds like “hate” and therefore this sounds more positive. The “library” was changed to “truebrary” to respect the knowledge gained and stored there (Lee 1998). Other words from the Rastafari culture are:
Male Rasta companions
A gay person
God, used sometimes to give praise to all of the above: Jah Ras Tafari, Haille Selassie (personification of the Almighty), King of Kings, Lord of Lords, conquering Lion of Judah
Fat or overweight
a criminal, a hard hearted person, a tough guy
(Jamaican Patios Dictionary 2009)
As mentioned earlier, the language of Patois socially acceptable to be used for specific things: stories, folklore, literature and song lyrics. The songs can be either traditional or modern and often need to the use of Patois to create the meaning; if translated, the same literary techniques and devices may not convey. Lyrics can have double entendres and knowledge for local culture is needed to understand the meaning. Also themes in social democracy, conditions of society and the trials and tribulations of the black people are all expressed through these areas. With lyrics from various artists using the language of the people of Jamaica, an example is Bob Marley in the song Rainbow Country (Justus 1978).
Hey Mr. Music
Ya sure sound good to me
I can't refuse it
What got to be, got to be
Feel like dancing
Dance cause we are free
I got my home
In the promise land
But I feel at home
Can you overstand
Said the road is rocky
sure feels good to me
and if your lucky
together we'd always be
Are you really rideing?
the sun is a risin'
the sign is a risin'
Moon is rising
Another example is the poet Linton Kwesi Johnson’s words in Sonny’s Lettah (Sebba 2002).
I hope that when these few lines reach you they may
Find you in the best of health
I doun know how to tell ya dis
For I did mek a solemn promise
To tek care a lickle Jim
An try mi bes fi look out fi him
Mama, I really did try mi bes
But none a di less
Sorry fi tell ya seh, poor lickle Jim get arres
It was de miggle a di rush hour
Hevrybody jus a hustle and a bustle
To go home fi dem evenin shower
Mi an Jim stan up waitin pon a bus
Not causin no fuss
When all of a sudden a police van pull up
Out jump tree policemen
De whole a dem carryin baton
Dem walk straight up to me and Jim
One a dem hold on to Jim
Seh dem tekin him in
Jim tell him fi leggo a him
For him nah do nutt'n
And 'im nah t'ief, not even a but'n
Jim start to wriggle
De police start to giggle
Mama, mek I tell you wa dem do to Jim?
Mek I tell you wa dem do to 'im?
Dem thump him him in him belly and it turn to jelly
Dem lick 'im pon 'im back and 'im rib get pop
Dem thump him pon him head but it tough like lead
Dem kick 'im in 'im seed and it started to bleed
Another aspect of the language used in society is story telling and literature. Poetry also has become a large outlet for the use of Patois that is accepted in society. Jamaican poets are often called dub poets. They use Africanized English (Patois) to add legitimacy to the “national language” of Jamaica. Poets such as Michael Smith and Mutabaruka use Patois as their language for their works.
nah tek nuh more lie
nah sidung [sit down] an cry
nah ask yuh de reasons why
white supremcecy mus end. –Mutabaruka
Also, the poet Kamau Brathwaite who writes all over the Caribbean uses Creole as the language of his poems. Connecting with the people as well as the culture and country.
I writin yu dis letter/wha
guess what! pun a computer o/kay?
like I jine de mercantilists!
well not quite!
I mean de same way dem tief/in gun
power from sheena & taken we blues &
There has been a debate among the people of Jamaica as well as the rest of the world about the issue of bilingualism in Jamaica. Most of the population is in fact bilingual with nearly 80% of the island speaking both English and Jamaican. From a survey, many people feel that parliament in Jamaica should deliver their speeches in Patois to better communicate with their constituents. Those who understand English will understand Patois but not the other way around. English is now the official language of Jamaica; however, 69% of the people feel that Patois should be made an official language as well (Francis 2005).
Bilingual schools are another issue being discussed. Most of the children growing up learning to speak Patois and only when the enter school do they begin to learn English. Most schools do not allow speaking of Patois in order to force the children to learn English fast. It is very valuable to be able to speak both languages however some do not finish school. This then continues the pattern of children growing up learning Patois because that is what their parents speak and then later learning English as a second language (Francis 2005). Despite the similarity in race, bilingual projects have also had scorn and criticism due to it being expensive and the social feelings about Patois as a language. It is sometimes called “degenerate English” with “raw mispronunciation”. There is another social aspect to this as well; the educated upper class, tend to have lighter skin and speak English. The majority of Jamaicans struggle economically with low wages and use Patois daily, listen to music using Patois, identify with the words and have darker skin. The divide between the two languages and races is about culture, linguistics, economic standing and skin color (Cooper 16-20).
The mix of language that was created is unique to Jamaica—with its African heritage and European Influence, the Creole of Jamaica reflects the culture created on one island throughout its history. The language represents the people of Jamaica, their historical struggle for equality and the life style and culture of people.
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