Jamaican Patois: A Semantic Approach and A Dissection of Patois versus “Standard English”

By Stephanie Noordewier

When discussing Reggae music with my parents’ generation I was disappointed to realize that my own Father and Mother did not recognize Rhetoric of Reggae as a worthwhile class. Stemming from this, we began to discuss Jamaicans and their culture and thus the culture of Reggae. As I listened to them discuss Reggae “riddims,” I realized that their main affront to the music was the content of the lyrics and more specifically the way Jamaicans spoke. They expressed an opinion, though without saying it outright, that Jamaican Patois was a less “intelligent” dialect of English, and that they found it to be a dumbed-down version of the “American” language. To that note, I think it is important to correct them. As obviously un-accepting as my parents are, I wanted to explain to them how Jamaican speech is not dumbed down, but how an actual need for their dialect of Patois arose. They needed their speech for the Jamaican message. I want to look deeper into the formation of the language. I would argue that though the sound of it may act differently then grammatically correct English (“I say” versus “me say”) that the language of reggae is sharp and purposeful. In fact this beautiful dialect (Creole) exemplified in Reggae has huge messages in its discourse.

The way you speak influences and is influenced by your perspective. In fact, psychologists have said “your perception is your reality.” (Brody) Music exists on this measure; music is a way that people express their perspective on their and other people’s realities. That is why it is important to understand the language of Jamaican Patois which acts as the language of Jamaican Reggae. It is as not just a sub-form of English, but was molded as a form of cultural action and resistance to the English colonizers in the 1600’s when Britain established Jamaica as a colony. My intent is to explore the formation and discourse around Patois and the reason that speaking Patois became the norm and how it has affected Jamaicans.     

In Jamaica, the official national language is English. However, many English speaking foreigners would be surprised upon entering the country that they do not understand their hosts and the way they talk. This is because Jamaicans speak in the dialect I previously mentioned called “Jamaican Patois” (said: pĺtwa). The dialect was influenced by the cultural ancestry of British colonization and the mixing of this with the native tongue of many black-African Jamaicans during the slave-trade.  Various African languages contribute to the sounds that make up Patois. In many ways the formation of Patois was in rebellion to what Rasta’s call “downpression” meaning “oppression” that the British inflicted on them. It emerged as a means of battling their White rulers, and a way of communicating in front of and about the British without being understood. “The continued currency of African languages also gave slaves who spoke them the means of mocking their masters with impunity.” (p.27 Burton)                

Old journals of plantation owners reveal that the Jamaican Patois that developed overwhelmingly bothered the ruling, white populous. Taken straight from a lasting journal from the times of slavery, a British plantation owner (Long) says:

 “In their conversation…they confound all the moods, tenses, cases and conjunctions without mercy.”

…For example “me glad for to see you” (pro: I am glad to see you)…”

He goes on to comment on how though the Creole (coming from the Spanish word “criollo,” meaning “created race”) that developed was produced by Black slaves in the evolution of Jamaica, it became a language spoken by many colors in the country.

“This sort of gibberish likewise infects many of the White Creoles, who learn it from their (black or colored) nurses in infancy, and meet with much difficulty, as they advance in years, to shake it entirely off, and express themselves with correctness.” (Long)

It would seem that the use of this changed-English was intentional; not a product of stupid people unable to learn “correct” English. It is more a product of not being taught correct English and manufacturing a survival through dialogue in a culture where many different tribes of African were forced to communicate. Instead of learning English, they revolted through language and created a mixing of their African tribal languages with some English properties.

In Lord’s book she talks about how many West African languages form their sentences and forms of verbs differently in the basic morphological structure. (Morphemes being the smallest linguistic unit that has Semantic meaning.) In her book she says:

 “In contrast to languages such as English, where the occurrence of separate verbs is normally taken to imply a multi-clause construction involving either subordination or coordination, in a serializing language a single clause may therefore contain two – or more – verbs.” (Lord)

This means that the way verbs are formed is by combining a verb that means (ex. Go) and a verb that means specifically “past tense” (which varies in the different languages, but in Swahili is “ka”). In English to do this one would change the lexical category of the verb.  But like I said, African languages make the past tense of a verb by using a separate word/verb (morpheme-s). This kind of structure carried over to Patois in sentence structure like: “Mi a go lef today” (“I am leaving today”). The verb in the first is two separate words “a” and “go” instead of the one English word “leaving,” indicating the inflected form of the verb “to leave.”

The following is an example using the verb “to love,” which is the same in English and Patois. It exemplifies how the verb changes tense by adding a separate morpheme(s):

mi  love
yu  love
im  love
wi  love
unu love
dem love

Present progressive
mi  a love
yu  a love
im  a love
wi  a love
unu a love
dem a love


mi  en love
yu  en love
im  en love
wi  en love
unu en love
dem en love

Past progressive
mi  ena love
yu  ena love
im  ena love
wi  ena love
unu ena love
dem ena love



To American/European ears these differences are often construed as “un-educated,” yet in many ways they imply a multi-cultural education if studied closer (at least for the immediate descendents of Africa.) The fact that African slaves learned English, would imply for a large part an intelligence. It becomes harder for children above the age of eight years old (Bialystok) to learn a second language. Psychologists differ on the exact length, but they unanimously agree that there is a “critical period” where normal language acquisition occurs, and it lasts from birth to puberty. (Bergmann) So the fact that adults mastered the language and in terms, “branded” it with their “otherness” by adapting it to their native tongue in order to live in English culture, is commendable.

One very interesting fact is that before the Africans were brought by force to Jamaica, “They were an agricultural non-literate people, with a political and social background based on the tribe, the clan, and the village.” (Brathwaite) This is very interesting because due to the fact that they were non-literate, the fact that Jamaicans write in their dialect makes it in many ways, not-English but a new form. An example of this is the “Big Boy” series, a popular Jamaican folk hero. The short stories are a series of short tales for children to read about “a fool…(who) even (in) his ignorance triumphs over his enemies.” They are supposed to be humorous because he is “rude,” by which Jamaicans mean “obscene.” The following is one example:

Big Boy Spells Ink

“One time Big Boy go to school, and Big Boy teacher say, ‘Who can spell ink?’

And Big Boy say, ‘Well I caan’ spell ink.  Everybody in a di class caan’ spell ink.’

So a man say, ‘Big Boy, wha’  appen? Spell ink nuh!”

Him say, ‘I ain’ kare.’

Teacher say, ‘What you say?’

Him say, ‘I ain’ kare.’

‘Yes, Big Boy, spell it. Him say I-N-K!’”

The Patois in these children’s stories was in effect a first, and a birth un-like European English. It is written in the dialect of the children reading it and therefore builds their identity as literate “Patois readers.”                      

Still, Patois is sometimes described as “lazy English,” “bastardized English,” “poor grammar,” and “fractured slang.” I think what often contributes to these negative perspectives and thought about Jamaican Patois is that Jamaicans according to foreigners speak, or try to speak English. And because Patois is a form of Creole or “a mix of more than one language,” they do speak English in a way, in terms of a lot of the vocabulary. However, their grammar is very different (as is much of their own vocabulary.) Because it is so close to English, the comparison in unavoidable; and due to the chopped grammar, and dropping of letters etc, it comes about as sounding like a less-educated way of English, or not-proper, socially unacceptable English, when really the dialect developed as a language parallel to English.

Specifically, to attack the view that Patois is slang, I would like to argue that “slang” refers just to the vocabulary of a language or dialect, and “words that are primarily used by young people in informal contexts.” (Discover)  Patois also includes distinctive patterns of pronunciation and grammar. These elements of language are more systematic and since wide spread in Jamaica from all ages and sexes, are less easily categorized as “slang.”

Another reason it might be referred to as “slang” according to “Suite for Ebony and Phonics” is because it tends to “omit word-final consonants, especially if they come after another consonant, as in "tes(t)" and "han(d).” However, because so many new words are created using identical words from English for new meaning, it could be said that the shortening process is one of expansion and economy. In order to speak faster and more easily say complex thoughts, they have condensed words to shorter ones. Similar to how Americans use “clipping” which is “an omission from a word like bathtub and making it tub or air plane and making it just plane.” (Bergmann) This speaks to an argument of intelligence and economy in both languages, because communication is a means of survival. Therefore, the argument of Patois words being slang is not solid.                         

So if it is not slang then what? It is hard to define it precisely as it is not quite a different language from English but a very different dialect then American English. The 1997 LSA Resolution said that “spoken Cantonese and Mandarin are mutually unintelligible, but they are usually regarded as “dialects” of Chinese because their speakers use the same writing system and see themselves as part of a common Chinese tradition. By contrast, although Norwegian and Swedish share many words and their speakers can generally understand each other, they are usually regarded as different languages because they are the autonomous varieties of different political entities (Norway, Sweden).” (1997 LSA resolution) So then it would make sense to claim that because Jamaica is both of a different political system and of a different written word then “standard” English it would seem to be a separate language by definition. Yet despite this, most linguists agree that it is more of a dialect of English than a separate language “insofar as it shares most of its vocabulary and many other features with other informal varieties of American English,” (Lord) and can be understood for the most part by those speakers of most other American English dialects.

So by theory it is a dialect, and because it is a distinct dialect, I would like to focus on why it developed in the first place. I would like to disprove the idea that because it is in appearance “simpler” then English, and uses many “made up” words that it is any less powerful and intelligent than standard English. According to a study done in Oxford University:

 “The single most important factor in the development of Jamaican society was not by imported influence of the Mother Country or the local administrative activity of the white elite, but a cultural action—material, psychological, and spiritual—based upon the stimulus/response of individuals within the society to their environment and—as white/black, culturally discrete groups—to each other. The scope and quantity of this response and interaction were dictated by the society’s foundation and composition—a “new” construct, made up of newcomers to the landscape and cultural strangers to each other; one group dominant, the other legally and subordinately slaves. This cultural action or social process has been defined within the context of this work as Creolization.” (Brathwaite)

 This segment seeks to explain how the hybrid of two languages in the case of Jamaica was and is the foundation of Jamaican culture. The language benefited the people because it allowed them to, without being outright uneducated in English, adopt their own means of communicating so that they could selectively share and keep information from the White ruling power. Due to the fact that the dominant language (English) was forced on the oppressed African slaves, this allowed the society to be founded on margins and differences. In order to survive and keep traditions from the African continent alive, they were forced to blend their two cultures; much the same way that reggae is a blend of American blues, Ska and percussion. “It has been said that language is the theater for enacting of the social, political and cultural life of people, as well as the embodiment of that drama.” (Alleyne) When Jamaica was formed, there was no “pure” race existing there like in European countries, so the country was made on contradictions and superimpositions. Their “drama” was that of trying to compile some remains of history in the new foreign land.

Culture is never static, but evolving, and it is notable again that “Blackness” in turn affected the white settlers. The same journals by Long as earlier stated the way it was during slavery saying:

 “…the Creole language is not confined to the negroes. Many of the ladies who have not been educated in England, speak a sort of broken English…they descend so low as to join them in their Gibberish, and by insensible degrees almost acquire the same habit of thinking…”

It is in this way that Jamaican Patois eventually became the language of Jamaica in the 1940’s and that a number of races living in Jamaica came to speak it naturally. It pushed race boundaries and helped the slaves dominate at least audibly, if not ideogically.

The last line of Long’s quote is where I would like to focus next (“…acquire the same habit of thinking…”). Because I think it exemplifies the power of language. The White slave owners, who would speak like the natives according to the firsthand account of Long, would develop a similar way of speaking. The text goes on to comment on how many White women would copy the styles of clothing the African slaves would wear and cleaned their teeth “with chawstick(s)” as did the Africans.

In 1935, Malinowski, a famous linguist, after studying many native languages concluded that “ultimately all the meaning of all words is derived from bodily experience.” (Volume 2, p. 58) This represents huge leaps and bounds in expressing why Patois was beneficial to Jamaicans and why it is appropriate that they write in Patois and not be educated in Standard English. To explain this passage it is important to understand the theory of Semiotics or the study of the “sign” process. To briefly explain this complicated theory I will try to simplify it.

Semiotics, in the most simple terms, exists in that there is a Signified and a Signifier. There is a word, in whatever language (French, Spanish etc.) and with it there is a denotated and a connotative meaning as well. To explain this idea, I will use the example of a “door.” The “door” is an object as well as being an arbitrary combination of morphemes that make up an English word; a word English speakers associate with the object of a door; this makes the word a symbol (of the word “door”). When one elects what the denotated meaning of the word “door” is, it would be most commonly, a brown or white rectangular object that keeps heat in and cold out or vice versa. It protects from weather and enemies and keeps two spaces separate for means of survival. The denotative meaning is in essence the simple meaning.

However, the connotative meaning of the symbol “door” is much broader and brought about by cultural ways of thinking and the common ideology. The cultural and “connotative” meaning for door could lead the speaker to think of the saying “keys open doors,” meaning a saying for opportunity or maybe lead them to think of Alice and Wonderland when Alice is in the chamber with the many doors. The second would only be discovered through ideology, because that is a children’s story read to children only in certain cultures. In this way, every culture has certain emphasis on certain words that other cultures do not. It is through this connotative meaning that certain cultures develop differently linguistically.

So how does Semiotics tie into the contention about Jamaican Patois then? Because I argue that their changing of vocabulary and emphasis on words has meaning. The fact that there is no morphological change in words when they go from present to past…

ex. “Me bleach hard lass night.” (instead of “bleached”)

…emphasizes their Rastafarian philosophy on life that one should live in the present. The Jamaican past is full of sorrow in slavery and they choose to focus on the present. Also, the verb formation is not a stupid, it is common in West African languages to have separate morphemes for their past tense. This means that instead of saying “ed” at the end of walk, “ed” would be a separate word, and since they were never taught English in schools, they adapted themselves and formed this dialect.

Importantly, the psychologist Malinowski goes on to say:

“The general notion of context of situation is as necessary for the understanding of English or any other major language…It is simply that the specific contexts of the culture are different.”

            Therefore, it is without a doubt, inevitable that vocabulary would change or be different in Jamaica then in America or Europe. The culture is different, so they needed new vocabulary to more effectively establish their thoughts and announce the connotated meaning common in Jamaican culture. For example, the phrase “tan so back” translates to English as meaning “Laid back.” The reason for this sentence being different is connotative. The change in vocabulary was true to the culture and the climate. To “tan” is to lie in the sun for long periods of time and change the color of one’s skin to a darker shade. In Britain there is not as much sunlight as a climate like Jamaica. So because they use the word tan, it culturally implies that lying around (in the constant sun) gets you tan, and when you are laid back, you are usually not worried about being productive and are peaceful with your environment. In Europe to say “tan so back” would not make sense because to lie around and be idle in the constant gloom and rain of London and get tan, would not happen. 

Another example of this would be with dancing. In Europe, the dance style was more upright and with far less percussion and contact between partners. In Jamaica with the reggae music, the dance style was different and involved use of the whole body. The expression “the gal come wine up on me,” would mean that at a dancehall “the girl came and was dancing up on me.” The word “wine” came because it replaced the word “wind” which replaced the word “dance.” The Jamaican style dance was different then European dance and used a motion that is similar to winding a clock etc. Because of this it makes sense for a word to develop in Creole to represent this difference. It is in this way, that this Creole culture represents the margin and the shifting and blending of the two cultures. Because “the context of the cultures are different” so then too, it would make sense for some descriptive vocabulary to be. As I mentioned earlier, your perception is your reality so because of this it Explain how two people can see the same thing and interpret it differently. So by classifying verbs and vocabulary differently it represents the multicultural way words are looked at. It makes sense that since a word, Semiotically, is simply a sign, the sign used would be of the most obvious presentation.

It is through this complex formation of Patois that Jamaicans now use their language to represent their world views on race, politics, sex, love and the humanistic experience. Anthony B says in his lyrics “Free:”

Caan use ghetto man like dem a mucule
Caan come tear dem like terline and wool
Cup dem empty rasta come fi full
Justice dem lock up a it me pull
Fi do that you a fi brave, bad like bull
Chant lightning that mean say bobo powerful
Don't try stop you brother when you see him a do him good
Leave all judging to Jah Jah that you should.

There is still a lot of variation in reactions to the dialect; however, even with the Jamaican people. It is a language that has helped them historically, but in today’s global economy where standard English is dominant, it would seem necessary that in the political and economic spotlight, by dropped. The Jamaican populous is aware that the accent is only appropriate in certain circumstances, and like I said before most are able to speak regular English as well.

Alicia Beckford Wassink did a study in rural Jamaica in 1999 and found the following:

“Speakers from a semi-rural community within the Jamaican Creole continuum were asked what kind of linguistic entity they believe the Creole to be, where it is in use, whom they understand to be its users, and which domains they deem appropriate and inappropriate for its use. A language-attitude interview schedule yielding an Attitude Indicator Score (AIS) was developed for use in this community. This schedule contained two sets of questions, ATTITUDE AND DESCRIPTION questions, which were designed to capture information concerning overt and covert language attitudes. Results show respondents’ attitude systems to be multi-valued: They were generally ambivalent in their attitude toward Jamaican Creole, but they judged it appropriate or inappropriate for use in different contexts according to their social distance from or solidarity with an interlocutor…” (Wassink)

For clarification, an interlocutor is “A person who takes part in dialogue or conversation with a proper form to do so.” (In other words, in this instance, “Standard English.)  This attitude is what one may expect due to the highly commercial mentality in modern culture. Many Jamaicans, due to the growing dancehall, are more focused on monetary success; however, if not through the dancehall, they have been led to believe that they must conform to succeed.” Sadly, this may be true, but it is however unfortunate that the world is not willing to take time to listen to/for “difference.”

People have actually set out to create linguistic Language Treatments for Third World countries. Bjorn H. Jernudd of the Cultural Learning Institute says this about these sorts of treatments:

“The developed nations’ speech communities…have a diffracted, various institutional structure of language treatment. The discipline of linguistics takes its specialized place in that structure and makes it highly abstract contribution perhaps mainly by providing a theory to explain utterances and by providing grammars as tools of description of utterances. When emerging speech communities develop treatment systems, disciplinary linguistics, may not at first be the most appropriate basis. Today’s linguistics is not equipped to help solve language problems that accompany accelerating communicative exchange toward modernization and to help develop language…” (Jernudd)

I argue that to change language and implement a new force again is to change history. It is to ignore the past that developed the language and to again force the oppressed to succumb to White ideology. Jernudd goes on to say that people should focus their attention on:

 “…language as it is used, on the meanings of words, on cultural and political issues of language, on language history, on language reform…”

The position of language vis-ą-vis a people’s culture cannot be over-emphasized, specifically for Jamaican Patois. Language is one’s identity. The unfortunate thing about globalization is that the more expanding the large expanding “English” powers of the world do, the more contracting the non-powers will have to do. Although Patois is not under immediate threat of extinction, the current observable trend suggests it is fast headed for that end. Reversal of this trend would mean Jamaican resistance to the current cultural imperialism of their culture, language, and in some ways their nation. Hopefully with the rise in awareness of Jamaican culture, mainly through the outlet of Reggae music, it is hopeful that the Jamaica will come into a better economic future. This will largely influence whether or not they are forced to adapt to Western Culture. Regardless of whether or not one associates this language with weed smoking and dreadlocks swaying, it is important to also realize that Patois has a deep, complicated, and in many ways dark, Black history.

Work Cited

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