A Guide to Jamaican Patois

Linguistically, Jamaica is a varied and interesting place. Several variations of ‘Jamaican’ are spoken there. Jamaican English is an amalgam of American and British English, with a strong preference towards American English, given the island’s proximity to America and its influence (cable TV, movies and popular music). Next, there’s the Rastafarian use of English. This differs greatly from both the patois and Jamaican English in its use of a modified English dialect, or some could say newly created dialect, where certain words or word parts are replaced to better adhere to the precepts of Rastafari. Examples of this are ‘Babylon’ which insinuates anything or anyone having to do with the government or any organization perceived as being against Jah (God). Further, Rastafarian English removes or alters any perceived negative words or syllables and changes them to positive. ‘Dedicated’ becomes ‘livicated’ as ‘live’ is a good, positive word.

Jamaican Patois however, is a curious blending of Creole and English, originating from the West African slaves who were brought over hearing the speech of their masters. Even though British English is the predominant language when it comes to writing, Jamaican Patois, which is primarily a spoken tongue, has been gaining ground in literary circles for some time.

Highly idiomatic, the Jamaican Patois is difficult to understand for many, even for fellow English (non-Caribbean) speakers. Additionally, Jamaican Patois has several similarities to the pidgin and Creole languages of West Africa due to their common descent from African languages that have become meshed with assorted European languages. Another problem with Jamaican Patois is that because it’s a non-standard language, there are multiple ways of writing it. No official way exists. This could be why certain authors who wrote in Patois exclusively had such a difficult time in gaining acceptance from their contemporaries elsewhere in the world. Another aspect of Jamaican Patois that makes it so fascinating is that it contains many loanwords, mostly English. However, there are words borrowed from other tongues as well – namely Spanish, Portuguese, Hindi, Arawak and African dialects.

Such a rich and varied language should be the talk of the town, not only in academic circles, but also the world over. Thankfully the language is not isolated solely to the island. Large communities of Jamaican expatriates exist in several cities around the world, including Toronto, Washington D.C., London, New York, Hartford, Miami, and elsewhere in the Caribbean.

A Great Patois Dictionary

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