Emancipation Park Kingston, Jamaica

Can you speak Jamaican or Patois? The History of Jamaican language

jamaican patois

Jamaican patois

A Jamaican Conversation

“Bredrin, wa gwaan?”
“Bwoy, ya done know seh mi deya gwaan easy.”
“Yes I, a so it go still. Not ‘n na gwaan, but we a keep di faith, nuh true?”
“True. How de pickney dem stay?”
“Bwai, dem aright. One a dem wan tun DJ an bus. Nex one wan go a foreign an bus. A try mia try reason with dem still.”
“Yeh man, a so pickney stay fi real. Dem fi know seh every mickle mek a muckle.”
“True. Mi deh pon haste, ya hear? A faawod mi a faawod.”
“Yeh man, lickle more, seen?”
“Lickle more.”

The English Translation

“What ‘s up, man?”
“I ‘m here just taking it easy.”
“Yeah, that ‘s how it is. Times are hard but we have to keep the faith, isn’t that right?”
“Yeah. How are your kids?”
“They ‘re alright. One wants to be a DJ and make it big. Another one wants to migrate and make it big. I ‘m just trying to reason with them.”
“Yeah, that’s how kids are. They have to know that you have to work for things little by little.”
“True. Listen, I ‘m in a hurry. I’m going to leave.”
“OK, see you later.”
“See you later.”
How can it be that a conversation between two Jamaicans needs translating into English?
What does it mean that many people mistakenly think that “no woman no cry” means if one doesn’t have a woman, one has no reason to cry?
How can it be that Bounty Killer and No Doubt ‘s billboard single “Hey Baby” is most likely the only Bounty Killer song any non-Jamaican will understand?
These examples demonstrate that Jamaicans have a language all their own, a language partially based on, but very different from English. So different, in fact, that the average English speaker cannot go into a Jamaican rum bar and understand the men sitting at the counter, or go to a dancehall session and understand what the selector is saying, let alone the DJs.
This article is a brief attempt to trace the history of Jamaican language and how it is used in Jamaica today, to help us all understand one another a little better.

The Development of Jamaican Language

If we use the metaphor of human life to understand the development of Jamaican language, we can see that the language was born out of a series of historical contacts and collisions: trade, war, slavery, the plantation system, colonialism, etc.

After this birth and early childhood, the language was raised in the island ‘s hills and gullies, in maroon settlements, and in growing cities and towns.

Finally, the Jamaican language came of age in the vibrant music and oral literature of the nation.

understanding_jamaican_patois by emile adams

This language has many names.

Most people, in Jamaica and abroad, call it “patois,” which was originally derived from the French, meaning a common tongue formed for communication between groups who previously didn’t share a language –master and slave, for example.

Though “patois” has taken on a meaning of its own in the Jamaican context, it has negative linguistic connotations of inferiority.

Patois is often thought to be a degenerate version of a so-called “pure” language.

To avoid this stigma, and to describe the Jamaica language in a positive and accurate way, researchers say that it is not a patois at all, but a Creole.

A Creole is, to put it simply, a language developed over time through the mixing of other languages, which eventually becomes more than, or independent from, the sum of its parts.

From the slave trade through the early slavery period, English and African languages mixed (words, grammar, intonation, etc.) with few Amerindian (Native Caribbean)and Spanish influences as well.

Because English was and is the language of power, capital, and prestige, most of the words in the Jamaican language have English roots.

However, the sounds and many of the grammatical structures, as well as some words, have a strong African presence –unit, meaning “you” (plural), nyam, meaning “to eat,” and obeah, loosely meaning a “science” related to the spirit world, are just a few examples of African words used in Jamaica today.

As Caribbean poet and historian Kamau Brathwaite states, this language is,” an English like a howl, or a shout or a machine-gun or the wind or a wave … in its contours, its rhythm and timbre, its sound explosions, it is not English.”

Dr. Carolyn Cooper

Given this mixture of influences, the language is most often called Jamaican Creole by linguists. For formal use this name is fine, but I prefer to follow Dr. Carolyn Cooper (see suggested reading) who calls the language simply Jamaican, just like the language originating in England is English, in Spain Spanish, etc.

Calling the language Jamaican gets rid of any negative connotations other names might carry, and affirms it as what Brathwaite called a nation language: the independent language of an independent people.

Today Jamaican is spoken throughout the country, as well as in neighborhoods of the Jamaican Diaspora in New York, London, Toronto, etc.

Jamaica’s Official Language is English

It is important to note, however, that English is still the so-called “official” language of Jamaica.

JAMIEKAN ALFABET couetesy of John Wells's phonetic blog

JAMIEKAN ALFABET couetesy of John Wells’s phonetic blog


English is the language of education, commerce, and the institutional world. Because of this colonial legacy, Jamaican is still considered by many within the country and abroad as merely “bad English” or “slang,” spoken only by the poor and uneducated.

Indeed, the language in Jamaica is a class issue.

Because wealthier people have access to better and higher education, they often speak a language closer to English than those who have less formal education.

We should remember though, that there are many forms of education, and many Jamaicans who live in rural or inner-city areas speak Jamaican with fluency and currency that wealthier Jamaicans lack.

In general, everyone on the island understands English and can speak something close to English when the situation demands it: in a bank or store, or when interacting with a tourist, for example.

Though many people may still stigmatize the language as corrupt or flawed English, Jamaican is a vibrant language rich with African ancestral memory and the more current creations of contemporary prophets:

  • Bob Marley,
  • Miss Lou,
  • Mutabaruka,
  • dancehall DJs, etc.

As Jamaicans continue to emancipate themselves from the mental slavery of colonialism and struggle against neo-colonialism in all its forms –from tourism to IMF/WTO sponsored economic austerity to local poli-tricks — Jamaican language is a crucial area of self-expression and self-consciousness.

Jamaican Patois and Rastafari

Rastafari brethren and sistren understood from long ago the emancipatory potential of language, and over time they have taken Jamaican and filled it with their own usages and meanings.

Rastas saw the power of the word to reproduce the existing order or to create an order of its own, and they chose to use the words to rewrite, or re-speak, their surrounding reality. Jamaican writer and researcher Velma Pollard (see suggested reading) explains in her book Dread Talk, three main categories in which rastas use language as a vehicle for mental and spiritual emancipation.

In Pollard ‘s first category, standard words take on new meaning. So seen becomes “I agree” or “do you agree,” forward becomes to leave or to go, and Babylon becomes anything having to do with the official and corrupt system, though it is used most often to refer to the police.

In her second category, rastas literalize the sound of words, and change them accordingly; thus understand becomes overstand, because if you truly understand something you are no longer under it, but over it; oppress becomes downpress, because the direction of oppression is not “up” as the first syllable suggests, but down.

I-words and Jamaican Patois

The third and final category is I-words, in which rastas use the pronoun “I” in special ways. For rastas, “I” is a powerful pronoun of self- assertion and agency, and also invokes the power and glory of their God, Haile Selassie I.

Thus to refer to oneself as “I and I” as opposed to me, or to start a word with an ‘I ‘ sound is to assert power and holiness, and connects themselves with a higher power.

Some examples of words in which ‘I ‘ replaces the first syllable include I–drin for brethren or sistren, I-tal for vital, and I-rie for free.


It is important to note that it is not rastas alone who use these words.

Though the concept of language manipulation in these particular ways originated with the rastas, these usages have spread outside their roots. “Jah know,” “overstand” and “spliff” are just a few examples of rasta- originated language use that have been completely integrated into the daily speech of Jamaican speakers.

Remember that not everyone in Jamaica speaks Jamaican on a regular basis. Though everyone can speak some version of it, you won ‘t find many middle and upper class people whose job may demand a language closer to English, who weren’t raised speaking Jamaican, or who may think it ‘s an inferior language saying “Jah know” or “nuh true” in regular conversation.

However, in rural and poorer urban areas, and among youth in general, you will find Jamaican as the standard.

The Youths and Jamaican Patois

Youth and youth culture is perhaps the most important vehicle for the preservation and continual reinvention of Jamaican today.

Music specifically is the primary space in which Jamaican has gained value and acceptance as a language of expression and import at home and abroad. As Jamaican music from Bob Marley to Bounty Killer gains increasing international attention, Jamaican language also spreads throughout the world.

Dancehall DJ music alone, which, as a genre, is much more insistent on using Jamaican than roots reggae has been, is constantly adding new terms and usages to the language and is always at the cutting edge of urban youth language use.

Jamaican Patois in Dancehall Music

Some examples of these new dancehall-inspired terms and usages are:

  • full-hundred meaning to give something your all, or the total extent of something;
  • watchi pum meaning a paranoid man who keeps a close eye on his woman;
  • or a whole barrage of fire terms including more fire, hotta fire, and terms used to bring down the purifying fire of judgment on habits and lifestyles that some may find immoral.

The Vibrancy of Jamaican Patois

In summary, the Jamaican language has a long history and a vibrant present.

Though it is still stigmatized as a bastard or inferior language by many, the body of creative work in it, from music and poetry to movies and TV shows, proves otherwise.

Any English speaker confronted with real Jamaican for the first time will know –mostly because he or she has no idea what the Jamaican speaker just said –that this is not English they are dealing with.

Unu walk good, seen?

Ya done know seh, a dem time deh … (All of you take care. As you know, we ‘ll meet again sometime …)

Hannah Appel
Hannah Appel is a San Francisco native who has spent the last two years in Kingston, Jamaica on a Fulbright grant, studying language and music. She has a B.A. in anthropol-ogy from Yale University, with a Caribbean studies focus. She makes a mean red peas soup and can “log on” and “zip it up” with the best of them.

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