Jamaican Patois Origins

Sun Island Jamaica – Patois

In this Sun Island Jamaica blog post we will attempt to explain how we speak in Jamaica. It is called Jamaica Patois, but we have come to understand that linguists call how we speak Jamaican Creole. What you hear on the street, in the market, when Jamaicans anywhere in the world are relaxed and happy to find each other they will speak in an English-based language with a lot of African words (Akan) embroidered into the web of sounds.

There are 3.2 million speakers of Jamiekan Patwa, as we might prefer to spell it, and it came into being in the 17 century when slaves from Africa began to learn the English spoken by the landowners in Jamaica, which was a mix of English, Welsh and something called Hiberno-English, which is the name for the dialects spoken by the Irish.

Jamiekan Patwa has come a long way since then and today, as well as being the main language used by Jamaican musicians for their songs, it is used in poetry, in the theatre and in books and is also taught as a language at the University of the West Indies.

We are not sure about this but we have been told that Claude McKay published his poems Songs of Jamaica in Jamiekan Patwa in 1906 or 1912 and we know for sure that Marlon James used it for his prize-winning book A Brief History of Seven Killings.

One of the most famous speakers of Patwa was Louise Bennett or Miss Lou (1919–2006), the Jamaican poet, folklorist, writer and educator. You might attempt to look for her book Jamaica Labrish, which is her book of poetry in ‘Jamaican Dialect’. Also we mentioned the dub poets in a past post, who would not be heard in any other language.

Reaching back into our time capsule, some may remember when the Jimmy Cliff movie (1972), The Harder they Come was released with subtitles for the Jamiekan Patwa. It was this film, by the way, that introduced reggae to the world.

Sun Island Jamaica – Weed of Wisdom

weedWe add a photo of the Sun Island Jamaica Weed of Wisdom t-shirt here, because its other name, Ganja, is a Hindi word that is now part of Jamiecan Patwa. (Find the t-shirt here https://www.sunislandjamaica.com/men/30-men-s-printed-culcha-tee.html).

You may have noticed in Jamaica that the letter H is loosely used and can go missing at the beginning of worlds like Home and House, but might be added where you least expect it. Then there is the old saying about Mr Garden in the gordon, which might give you an example of how the As and the Os get flipped when spoken.

If you want to know more you can check out the Wikipedia article on Jamaican Patois for more good information that hopefully will lead you further, (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jamaican_Patois ) and then you can go onto to search the Jamaican Patois dictionaries, one can be found here: http://jamaicanpatwah.com/dictionary, which we have added because it gives you words and expressions under different headings and you can also look up single words. You can also hear a lot of examples on You Tube, some of them quite funny, as Jamaicans try to teach non-Jamaicans how to speak Jamiecan Patwa.

Sun Island Jamaica – Irie Mon irie-mon

Then the Sun Island Jamaica Irie Mon t-shirt, seen here https://www.sunislandjamaica.com/41-clothing?p=30 tells us that Everything is OK Man!

And if you are a Rastafarian Irie can mean a lot more, like being in a state of peacefulness and harmony.

As before, the University of the West Indies offers courses that on last check included Caribbean Language: Socio-historical background and the Introduction to the Structure and Usage of Jamaican Creole.

Some who visit Jamaica, and return after months or years of being away find that the language shifts, changes, takes on different words, expressions are borrowed and take on new meanings. This is all evidence that Jamiecan Patwa is alive and well and living in Jamaica and many other places around the world.

So, remember Irie Mon!

One thought on “Jamaican Patois Origins

  1. George says:

    I wish there was standard spelling for the Jamaican “patwa” words. It is extremely difficult to write it and even more difficult to read, as there is no standardised spelling. Everyone just invents their own version of how it should be spelt. However, as you said, the dialect is ever-changing, so I guess it is not yet fully developed so as to have its own standard rules.

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