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Languages are the pedigree of nations -- Samuel Johnson (1709-84).  Jamaicans speak several languages but English is the official Language.  Again, slavery sets the tone, so to speak. English evolved as the pragmatic plantation language, but slave pidgin developed over generations to include bits of Portuguese, Spanish, and the West African languages Twi, Ewe, Akan, and Ashanti language.
Mek wi go.--"Let's go," an example of Jamaican Patois

Jamaica isn't in any danger of losing its language; rather, the language is in danger of losing the visitor. The rapid tongue- and grammar-twisting turns and dips of the language you hear occur just prior to the final "mon," possibly the only word you will understand in the phrase. But Jamaican Patois is a lyrical, very listenable language with color and depth, and no little history.

English dominates Patois, but the grammar and vocabulary are far removed from today's standard English.  In Patois, the pronunciation and intonation of English words emulate those of West African languages. The "th" sound becomes "d" or "t." Then "that" becomes "dat," or "three" becomes "tree," which is also a "tree." Thus, the "rat of God" does not refer to our heavenly rodent friend, but rather to the righteous rage of the Almighty.  "Dem," as in "them," is added to a noun to make it plural, as in "de pen dem," or "the pens." The "tl" sound in "bottle" becomes "bokkle." At times the "w" and "h" sounds are dropped from the beginning of a word, and "woman" is said "ooman," "him" becomes "im."

The pronoun "me" simplifies English's "I" and "me" and the possessive "my" to standard usage. "Me broke me toot" is "I broke my tooth." In the same manner, "him" is proper to use for "he," "she," or "it," and the possessives "his" or "hers."

Try this: "Me put 'im likkle bokkle ina cyar over dere" ("I put his/her little bottle in the car over there").

Jamaican Patois did not evolve as a written language but is now often written in novels, plays, anancy tales, and songs. The spelling leans toward the phonetic, but that is not always the case--"de bway" or "di bwoy" are both "the boy." In spelling, as in the language, the real rule is that personal preference dictates usage. Jamaicans can and will use varying degrees of Patois depending on those they talk to or, more accurately, those they want to understand them.  In the hills and rural areas, Patois is deep; some people speak little or no standard English.  In towns and business, especially among tourists and upper-class Jamaicans, Patois loses its edge; decreolization, or varying degrees of reverting to English, takes place as Jamaicans move toward social situations where the use of standard English is expected.

The vocabulary of Patois incorporates some English of the 17th century, words that the English themselves no longer use. A goblet? A large drinking glass. A chain?  If a Jamaican says something is a chain or two down the road, it is not in reference to a supermarket chain. A chain is an Old English unit of measurement used by surveyors (66 feet, or 22 yards).  Hundreds of words with African origins have been recorded in Jamaican Patois. Many, such as duppy & anancy, refer to spirits and the supernatural. Jonkanoo refers to the custom of masquerade dances. The word for "mud" is putta-putta, and some use nyam, possibly from the Fulani or Wolof languages of West Africa, meaning "to eat." A person who is a quashie is a fool. Place-names like Accompong and Naggo Head (the tribal name of a Yoruba-speaking people) owe their origins to Africa.

Phrases popularized by the tourist industry to project the image of the laid-back, nonchalant Jamaican, such as "soon come," "boonoonoonoos" (a big party), and "no problem," do have their basis in Jamaican Patois.  Expressions, proverbs, and uniquely Jamaican place-names have evolved into colorful additions to the language. "Walk good" (standard English spelling) can be said as a farewell.  When you hear, "Cockroach no business a chicken yard" someone is telling you to mind your own business. The names of the small towns Wait-A-Bit (from the wait-a-bit thorn bush of Africa, thought to have been brought by slaves), Quick Step, and Big Bottom tell their own stories.

One of the more versatile Jamaican words is rass, a good one to use judiciously. Originally it referred to the derriere, and it still does, but it can now also be a superlative ("a rass of a boat"), a term of endearment among friends ("Hey, rass, buy me nex drink"), or a straightforward cuss ("him a lying rass," or "dat rass dog"). It has, of course, an obvious English equivalent.

The special language of the Rastafarians has contributed more than a few words to Patois. A basic and central principle for this language, which has no definitive rules, is the emphasis of "I" for "I" and "me," and "I and I," sometimes "I 'n' I," for the plural "we." The use of "I" establishes a relationship with both Haile Selassie--the Rasta greeting "Haile" is pronounced "eye-li"--and the self. Hence I-tal, or natural food preparation. Bob Marley's female backup trio, featuring his wife Rita & Marcia Griffiths, was called the I-Three's. The "I" is often substituted in words for emphasis, as in "I-thiopia." Rastas may refer to themselves or to Rastafarianism as "Rastafar-I." The ubiquitous irie (pronounced "eye-ree"), meaning "great, wonderful," has found its way into mainstream Jamaican conversation and onto almost half of the T-shirts in the country.

A number of good language books are available in bookstores throughout the country, some funny, some profane, others serious studies. One of the best, though academic and expensive to boot, is A Dictionary of Jamaican English, by Frederic Cassidy and R.B. LePage. The best current treatment, written in layperson's terms, is Understanding Jamaican Patois, by L. Emilie Adams, available in most bookstores.
 
 


 

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