Let’s Talk Language: What Do You Know About Jamaican Patois?

Hey! Wah gwaan?

It’s February again, which means it’s Black History Month in the U.S. It’s been a bit quiet on the blog so far, but I want to start celebrating this month by introducing something a little different: an interview.

Today’s language topic is Jamaican Patois in honor of Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican-born man who was also a civil rights activist.

Lots of love and thanks to my lovely wife, who so graciously agreed to let me interview her.

A few quick facts…

  • Jamaican Patois is also known as Patwah or Jamaican Creole.
  • Similar to other Caribbean languages, like Haitian Creole, Jamaican Patois is actually influenced by a few different languages. For instance, Patois, though mostly English-based, is also influenced by a few African languages.
  • Patois has a few different dialects depending on the area of its speakers. Speakers in more rural areas tend to have thicker accents.
  • Jamaica’s official language is English, even though most people speak Patois.

Let’s Talk: Jamaican Patois

Q: What differences do you notice when you speak Patois vs. English?

When you speak Patois, there’s more emotion.

In English, when you tell a story, you start off saying something like:

“Oh my God! So, this thing happened and this is what happened and here are the people involved and this is how I felt.”

In Patois, it’s very long and drawn out, more like:

“Oh my God, guess who me see?”

“Ah, who?”

It’s very theatrical because English has so many words for things, adverbs and adjectives that you can add. It’s such a scholarly language that when you speak Patois it’s more like broken English. So, you have to add the animation to it.

Q: How long did it take you to learn?

So, I didn’t learn Patois. It’s what I spoke first. I spent a long time learning English and that’s why a lot of people say I speak without an accent or I speak with a British accent.

As a child, they kind of don’t correct you. So, I would speak Patois and I lived in Jamaica for a year when I was five. So, when I came back and it was time for me to go to school, my grandmother spent hours and hours and hours teaching me proper English.

Q: What tips do you have for someone who wants to learn Patois?

Go to the country where they speak the language. Honestly, you spend a week there and you’ll be speaking Patois. It’s part of the lifestyle.

When you go to the island, the whole lifestyle is like that. If you come here [the U.S.] and you make a reservation at a restaurant. You know, it’s table for two, you both sit down, you order what you want, you have light dinner conversation, and you leave.

When you go to dinner in Jamaica, it’s an affair. You know, you get a couple beers, you talk about everything. A lot of times, they end up playing dominos right there at the restaurant. The lifestyle there isn’t get-up-and-go. There’s no Starbucks where you can go get your coffee and run off to work.

When you go out to get breakfast it’s:

“Gud mawnin.”

“Oh, how’s yuh dawta?”

“Oh, yuh know she…”

So, after a while, that routine of doing that every day, you kind of start to talk like them.

A lot of tourists come back from the island and will try to do the accent, but I feel that they are around a lot of hotel staff that are trained to talk a certain way so that the guests will understand them. I think if they tried to do an immersive week there, it’d be very different.

Q: What are your thoughts about Patois in mainstream culture, e.g., “Hey, mon” ?

It’s just the novelty. My dad is definitely the novelty Jamaican dude. They’ll say, “Hey, this is my Jamaican friend. Hey, mon!” My dad will just smile uncomfortably because it’s very dated. It’s like saying “Hey, dude!” and you’re not a part of that culture or it’s like somebody saying, “Hey, bruh” and you’re a grown adult.

The way that English progresses to be more modernized, so does Patois. Maybe “Hey, mon” was cool back in the 80s, but now a lot of the kids say “Hey, ma yoot” which is “Hey, my youth, my fellow youth companion.” It’s a very proper way to say that, if you think about it in English, but because they’re skipping some syllables, it comes off as lazy and drawling.

It’s really interesting, I think. It makes for a very odd layer of language.

Q: What’s your favorite word or phrase?

Lo me, which is literally saying “leave me alone.” Basically, you’re saying “allow me,” which is, again, very proper.

Lo me nuh. There’s actually even a song. I love it. It has a little bit more of an attitude than “leave me alone.”

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

I really appreciate that different islands have their own version of Patois and certain things that are swears on one island aren’t swears somewhere else.

For instance, blouse an skirt, which is “blouse and skirt” is a swear in Jamaican Patois. A child couldn’t say it. It’s like damn. So, it’s not a hard curse word.

But if somebody’s exasperated by something, like the price of gas went up a dollar overnight: “Blouse an skirt, look ah deh gas prices!” It’s so ridiculously proper, but it’s a swear word!

Some of the things are fun, especially if you study language. It’s fun to kind of note, “Oh wow, that’s interesting.” Some of the very literal things, like instead of saying butt, they’ll say backside.

I guess Americans would hear this phrase and think it was weird, like a parent would say to a child: “You need some licks pon yuh backside.”

You’d be like: “Woah, what?” but it’s licks as in strikes. So, things like that are funny if you think of it literally.


Want to learn more about Patois? Check out some of the basics and resources listed here.

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