Jamaican Patois

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Jamaican Patois
Patwa, Jamiekan
Native toJamaica, Panama, Costa Rica
Native speakers
3.2 million  (ca. 2001)[1]
English creole
  • Atlantic
    • Western
      • Jamaican Patois
Official status
Regulated bynot regulated
Language codes
ISO 639-3jam
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Not to be confused with Jamaican English or Rastafarian vocabulary.
Jamaican Patois
Patwa, Jamiekan
Native toJamaica, Panama, Costa Rica
Native speakers
3.2 million  (ca. 2001)[1]
English creole
  • Atlantic
    • Western
      • Jamaican Patois
Official status
Regulated bynot regulated
Language codes
ISO 639-3jam
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters.
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(audio) A native speaker of Jamaican Patois speaking two sentences.

Jamaican Patois, known locally as Patois (Patwa or Patwah) or Jamaican, and called Jamaican Creole by linguists, is an English-based creole language with West African influences (a majority of loan words of Akan origin)[3] spoken primarily in Jamaica and the Jamaican diaspora. The language developed in the 17th century, when slaves from West and Central Africa were exposed to, learned and nativized the vernacular and dialectal forms of English spoken by their masters: British English, Scots and Hiberno-English. Jamaican Patois features a creole continuum (or a linguistic continuum)[4][5][6]—meaning that the variety of the language closest to the lexifier language (the acrolect) cannot be distinguished systematically from intermediate varieties (collectively referred to as the mesolect) nor even from the most divergent rural varieties (collectively referred to as the basilect). Jamaicans themselves usually refer to their language as patois, a French term without a precise linguistic definition.

Jamaican pronunciation and vocabulary are significantly different from English, despite heavy use of English words or derivatives. Jamaican Patois displays similarities to the pidgin and creole languages of West Africa, due to their common descent from the blending of African substrate languages with European languages.[citation needed]

Significant Jamaican-speaking communities exist among Jamaican expatriates in Miami, New York City, Toronto, Hartford, Washington, D.C., Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama (in the Caribbean coast), also London,[7] Birmingham, Manchester, and Nottingham. A mutually intelligible variety is found in San Andrés y Providencia Islands, Colombia, brought to the island by descendants of Jamaican Maroons (escaped slaves) in the 18th century. Mesolectal forms are similar to very basilectal Belizean Kriol.

Jamaican Patois exists mostly as a spoken language. Although standard British English is used for most writing in Jamaica, Jamaican Patois has been gaining ground as a literary language for almost a hundred years. Claude McKay published his book of Jamaican poems Songs of Jamaica in 1912. Patois and English are frequently used for stylistic contrast (codeswitching) in new forms of internet writing.[8]


Accounts of basilectal Jamaican Patois postulate around 21 phonemic consonants[9] and between 9 and 16 vowels.[10]

^1 The status of /h/ as a phoneme is dialectal: in western varieties, it is a full phoneme and there are minimal pairs (/hiit/ 'hit' and /iit/ 'eat'); in central and eastern varieties, the presence of [h] in a word is in free variation with no consonant so that the words for 'hand' and 'and' (both underlyingly /an/) may be pronounced [han] or [an].[12]
^2 The palatal stops [c], [ɟ][13] and [ɲ] are considered phonemic by some accounts[14] and phonetic by others.[15] For the latter interpretation, their appearance is included in the larger phenomenon of phonetic palatalization.

Examples of palatalization include:[16]

Voiced stops are implosive whenever in the onset of prominent syllables (especially word-initially) so that /biit/ ('beat') is pronounced [ɓiːt] and /ɡuud/ ('good') as [ɠuːd].[9]

Before a syllabic /l/, the contrast between alveolar and velar consonants has been historically neutralized with alveolar consonants becoming velar so that the word for 'bottle' is /bakl̩/ and the word for 'idle' is /aiɡl̩/.[17]

Vowels of Jamaican Patois. from Harry (2006:128)

Jamaican Patois exhibits two types of vowel harmony; peripheral vowel harmony, wherein only sequences of peripheral vowels (that is, /i/, /u/, and /a/) can occur within a syllable; and back harmony, wherein /i/ and /u/ cannot occur within a syllable together (that is, /uu/ and /ii/ are allowed but * /ui/ and * /iu/ are not).[18] These two phenomena account for three long vowels and four diphthongs:[19]


Sociolinguistic variation[edit]

Jamaican Patois is a creole language that exhibits a gradation between more conservative creole forms and forms virtually identical to Standard English[20] (i.e. metropolitan Standard English). This situation came about with contact between speakers of a number of Niger–Congo languages and various dialects of English, the latter of which were all perceived as prestigious and the use of which carried socio-economic rewards.[21] The span of a speaker's command of the continuum generally corresponds to the variety of social situations in which he or she situates himself.[22]


The tense/aspect system of Jamaican Patois is fundamentally unlike that of English. There are no morphological marked past tense forms corresponding to English -ed -t. There are two preverbial particles: en and a. These are not verbs, they are simply invariant particles that cannot stand alone like the English to be. Their function also differs from the English.

According to Bailey (1966), the progressive category is marked by /a~da~de/. Alleyne (1980) claims that /a~da/ marks the progressive and that the habitual aspect is unmarked but by its accompaniment with verbs like 'always', 'usually’, etc. (i.e. is absent as a grammatical category). Mufwene (1984) and Gibson and Levy (1984) propose a past-only habitual category marked by /juusta/ as in /weɹ wi juusta liv iz not az kuol az iiɹ/ ('where we used to live is not as cold as here')[23]

For the present tense, an uninflected verb combining with an iterative adverb marks habitual meaning as in /tam aawez nuo kieti tel pan im/ ('Tom always knows when Katy tells/has told about him').[24]

Like other Caribbean Creoles (that is, Guyanese Creole and San Andrés-Providencia Creole; Sranan Tongo is excluded) /fi/ has a number of functions, including:[25]

Pronominal system[edit]

The pronominal system of Standard English has a four-way distinction of person, number, gender and case. Some varieties of Jamaican Patois do not have the gender or case distinction, but all varieties distinguish between the second person singular and plural (you).




Patois has long been written with various respellings compared to English so that, for example, the word "there" might be written de, deh, or dere, and the word "three" as tree, tri, or trii. Standard English spelling is often used and a nonstandard spelling sometimes becomes widespread even though it is neither phonetic nor standard (e.g. pickney for /pikni/, 'child'). In 2002, the Jamaican Language Unit was set up at the University of the West Indies at Mona to begin standardizing the language, with the aim of supporting non-English-speaking Jamaicans according to their constitutional guarantees of equal rights. They standardized the Jamaican alphabet as follows:[31]

Short vowels
Long vowels

Nasal vowels are written with -hn, as in kyaahn (can't) and iihn (isn't it?)


h is written according to local pronunciation, so that hen (hen) and en (end) are distinguished in writing for speakers of western Jamaican, but not for those of central Jamaican.


Jamaican Patois contains many loanwords.

Primarily these come from English, but are also borrowed from Spanish, Portuguese, Hindi, Arawak and African languages as well as Scottish and Irish dialects.

Examples from African languages include /se/ meaning that (in the sense of "he told me that..." = /im tel mi se/), taken from Ashanti Twi, and /dopi/ (duppy) meaning ghost, from the Twi word adope. The pronoun /unu/, used for the plural form of you, is taken from the Igbo language. Red eboe describes a fair-skinned black person because of the reported account of fair skin among the Igbo.[32] Soso meaning only comes from both Igbo and Yoruba.[33] From Igbo comes Obeah, a form of African shamanism (and also used as a popular scapegoat for common woes) originating from the Igbo dibia or obia ('doctoring') herbalists and spiritualists.[34]

Words from Hindi include nuh, ganja (marijuana), and janga (crawdad). Pickney or pickiney meaning child, taken from an earlier form (piccaninny) was ultimately borrowed from the Portuguese pequenino (the diminutive of pequeno, small) or Spanish pequeño ('small').

There are many words referring to popular produce and food items—ackee, callaloo, guinep, bammy, roti, dal, kamranga. See Jamaican cuisine.

Jamaican Patois has its own rich variety of swearwords. One of the strongest is blood claat (along with related forms raas claat, bomba claat, claat and others—compare with bloody in Australian English and British English, which is also considered a profanity).

Homosexual men are referred to as /biips/[35] or batty boys.

Example phrases[edit]

Literature and film[edit]

A rich body of literature has developed in Jamaican Patois. Notable among early authors and works are Thomas MacDermot's All Jamaica Library and Claude McKay's Songs of Jamaica (1909), and, more recently, Linton Kwesi Johnson and Mikey Smith. Subsequently, the life-work of Louise Bennett or Miss Lou (1919–2006) is particularly notable for her use of the rich colourful patois, despite being shunned by traditional literary groups. "The Jamaican Poetry League excluded her from its meetings, and editors failed to include her in anthologies."[42] She argued forcefully for the recognition of Jamaican as a full language, with the same pedigree as the dialect from which Standard English had sprung:

Dah language weh yuh proud a,

Weh yuh honour an respec –

Po Mas Charlie, yuh no know se

Dat it spring from dialec!
Bans a Killin

After the 1960s, the status of Jamaican Patois rose as a number of respected linguistic studies were published, by Cassidy (1961, 1967), Bailey (1966) and others.[43] Subsequently, it has gradually become mainstream to codemix or write complete pieces in Jamaican Patois; proponents include Kamau Brathwaite, who also analyses the position of Creole poetry in his History of the Voice: The Development of Nation Language in Anglophone Caribbean Poetry (1984). However, Standard English remains the more prestigious literary medium in Jamaican literature. Canadian-Caribbean science-fiction novelist Nalo Hopkinson often writes in Jamaican or other Caribbean Patois. Jean D'Costa penned a series of popular children's novels, including Sprat Morrison (1972; 1990), Escape to Last Man Peak (1976), and Voice in the Wind (1978), which draw liberally from Jamaican Patois for dialogue, while presenting narrative prose in Standard English.[44]

Jamaican Patois is also presented in some films and other media, for example, Tia Dalma's speech from Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, and a few scenes in Meet Joe Black in which Brad Pitt's character converses with a Jamaican woman. In addition, early Jamaican films like The Harder They Come (1972), Rockers (1978), and many of the films produced by Palm Pictures in the mid-1990s (e.g. Dancehall Queen and Third World Cop) have most of their dialogue in Jamaican Patois; some of these films have even been subtitled in English.


In December 2011, it was reported that the Bible was being translated into Jamaican patois. The Gospel of St Luke has already appeared as: Jiizas: di Buk We Luuk Rait bout Im. While the Rev. Courtney Stewart, managing the translation as General Secretary of the West Indies Bible Society, believes this will help elevate the status of Jamaican Patois, others think that such a move would undermine efforts at promoting the use of English. The patois New Testament was launched in Britain (where the Jamaican diaspora is significant) in October 2012 as "Di Jamiekan Nyuu Testiment," and with print and audio versions in Jamaica in December 2012.[45][46][47]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Jamaican Patois at Ethnologue (17th ed., 2013)
  2. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Jamaican". Glottolog 2.2. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  3. ^ Cassidy FG: Multiple etymologies in Jamaican Creole. Am Speech 1966, 41:211-215
  4. ^ Rickford (1987:?)
  5. ^ Meade (2001:19)
  6. ^ Patrick (1999:6)
  7. ^ Mark Sebba (1993), London Jamaican, London: Longman.
  8. ^ Lars Hinrichs (2006), Codeswitching on the Web: English and Jamaican Creole in E-Mail Communication. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: Benjamins.
  9. ^ a b Devonish & Harry (2004:456)
  10. ^ Harry (2006:127)
  11. ^ Harry (2006:126–127)
  12. ^ Harry (2006:126)
  13. ^ also transcribed as [kʲ] and [ɡʲ]
  14. ^ such as Cassidy & Le Page (1980:xxxix)
  15. ^ such as Harry (2006)
  16. ^ Devonish & Harry (2004:458)
  17. ^ Cassidy (1971:40)
  18. ^ Harry (2006:128–129)
  19. ^ Harry (2006:128)
  20. ^ DeCamp (1961:82)
  21. ^ Irvine (2004:42)
  22. ^ DeCamp (1977:29)
  23. ^ Gibson (1988:199)
  24. ^ Mufwene (1984:218) cited in Gibson (1988:200)
  25. ^ Winford (1985:589)
  26. ^ Bailey (1966:32)
  27. ^ Patrick (1995:244)
  28. ^ Lawton (1984:126) translates this as "If the cow didn't know that his throat was capable of swallowing a pear seed, he wouldn't have swallowed it."
  29. ^ Lawton (1984:125)
  30. ^ Irvine (2004:43–44)
  31. ^ "Handout: Spelling Jamaican the Jamaican way".
  32. ^ Cassidy, Frederic Gomes; Robert Brock Le Page (2002). A Dictionary of Jamaican English (2nd ed.). University of the West Indies Press. p. 168. ISBN 976-640-127-6. Retrieved 2008-11-24. 
  33. ^ McWhorter, John H. (2000). The Missing Spanish Creoles: Recovering the Birth of Plantation Contact Languages. University of California Press. p. 77. ISBN 0-520-21999-6. Retrieved 2008-11-29. 
  34. ^ Eltis, David; Richardson, David (1997). Routes to slavery: direction, ethnicity, and mortality in the transatlantic slave trade. Routledge. p. 88. ISBN 0-7146-4820-5. 
  35. ^ Patrick (1995:234)
  36. ^ Patrick (1995:248)
  37. ^ Hancock (1985:237)
  38. ^ Patrick (1995:253)
  39. ^ Hancock (1985:190)
  40. ^ Cassidy & Le Page (1980:lxii)
  41. ^ Devonish & Harry (2004:467)
  42. ^ Ramazani (2003:15)
  43. ^ Alison Donnell, Sarah Lawson Welsh (eds), The Routledge Reader in Caribbean Literature, Routledge, 2003, Introduction, p. 9.
  44. ^ Bridget Jones (1994). "Duppies and other Revenants: with particular reference to the use of the supernatural in Jean D'Costa's work". In Vera Mihailovich-Dickman. "Return" in Post-colonial Writing: A Cultural Labyrinth. Rodopi. pp. 23–32. ISBN 9051836481. 
  45. ^ Robert Pigott, "Jamaica's patois Bible: The word of God in creole", BBC News, 25 December 2011. Retrieved 26 December 2011.
  46. ^ The Associated Press (8 December 2012). "Jamaican patois Bible released "Nyuu Testiment"". Colorado Springs Gazette. Retrieved 8 December 2012. "For patois expert Hubert Devonish, a linguist who is coordinator of the Jamaican Language Unit at the University of the West Indies, the Bible translation is a big step toward getting the state to eventually embrace the creole language created by slaves." 
  47. ^ Di Jamiekan Nyuu Testiment (Jamaican Diglot New Testament with KJV), British & Foreign Bible Society. Retrieved 24 March 2013.


Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]