Jamaican Patois

Jamaican Patois, known locally as Patois (Patwa or Patwah) and called Jamaican Creole by linguists, is an English-based creole language with West African influences (a majority of loan words of Akan origin)[4] spoken primarily in Jamaica and among the Jamaican diaspora; it is spoken by the majority of Jamaicans as a native language. Patois developed in the 17th century when slaves from West and Central Africa were exposed to, learned and nativized the vernacular and dialectal forms of English spoken by the slaveholders: British English, Scots, and Hiberno-English. Jamaican Creole exhibits a gradation between more conservative creole forms that are not significantly mutually intelligible with English,[5] and forms virtually identical to Standard English.[6]

Jamaican Patois
Patwa, Jumiekan, Jamiekan[1]
Native toJamaica, Panama, Costa Rica, Colombia (San Andrés y Providencia).
Native speakers
3.2 million (2000–2001)[2]
English creole
  • Atlantic
    • Western
      • Jamaican Patois
Official status
Regulated bynot regulated
Language codes
ISO 639-3jam

Jamaicans refer to their language as patois. Creoles are often stigmatized as the "lesser" language even though the majority of the population speaks Jamaican patois as their mother tongue.[7]

Jamaican pronunciation and vocabulary are significantly different from English despite heavy use of English words or derivatives, but their writing system shows commonalities with the English alphabet.[8]

Significant Jamaican Patois-speaking communities exist among Jamaican expatriates in Miami, New York City, Toronto, Hartford, Washington, D.C., Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama (in the Caribbean coast), also London,[9] Birmingham, Manchester, and Nottingham. A mutually intelligible variety is found in San Andrés y Providencia Islands, Colombia, brought to the island by descendants of Jamaican Maroons (escaped slaves) in the 18th century. Mesolectal forms are similar to very basilectal Belizean Kriol.

Jamaican Patois exists mostly as a spoken language and is also heavily used for musical purposes, especially in reggae and dancehall as well as other genres. Although standard British English is used for most writing in Jamaica, Jamaican Patois has been gaining ground as a literary language for almost a hundred years. Claude McKay published his book of Jamaican poems Songs of Jamaica in 1912. Patois and English are frequently used for stylistic contrast (codeswitching) in new forms of internet writing.[10]


Accounts of basilectal Jamaican Patois postulate around 21 phonemic consonants[11] one which can be contrastive in the Western dialect.[12] There are between 9 and 16 vowels.[13] Some vowels are capable of nasalization and others can be lengthened.[12]

Labial Alveolar Post-
Palatal2 Velar Glottal
Nasal m n ɲ ŋ
Stop pb td cɟ kɡ
Fricative fv sz ʃ (h)1
ɹ j w
^1 The status of /h/ as a phoneme is dialectal: in western varieties, it is a full phoneme and there are minimal pairs (/hiit/ 'hit' and /iit/ 'eat'); in central and eastern varieties, vowel-initial words take an initial [h] after vowel-final words, preventing the two vowels from falling together, so that the words for 'hand' and 'and' (both underlyingly /an/) may be pronounced [han] or [an].[15]
^2 The palatal stops [c], [ɟ][16] and [ɲ] are considered phonemic by some accounts[17] and phonetic by others.[18] For the latter interpretation, their appearance is included in the larger phenomenon of phonetic palatalization.

Examples of palatalization include:[19]

  • /kiuu/[ciuː][cuː] ('a quarter quart (of rum)')
  • /ɡiaad/[ɟiaːd][ɟaːd] ('guard')
  • /piaa + piaa/[pʲiãːpʲiãː][pʲãːpʲãː] ('weak')

Voiced stops are implosive whenever in the onset of prominent syllables (especially word-initially) so that /biit/ ('beat') is pronounced [ɓiːt] and /ɡuud/ ('good') as [ɠuːd].[11]

Before a syllabic /l/, the contrast between alveolar and velar consonants has been historically neutralized with alveolar consonants becoming velar so that the word for 'bottle' is /bakl̩/ and the word for 'idle' is /aiɡl̩/.[20]

Jamaican Patois exhibits two types of vowel harmony; peripheral vowel harmony, wherein only sequences of peripheral vowels (that is, /i/, /u/, and /a/) can occur within a syllable; and back harmony, wherein /i/ and /u/ cannot occur within a syllable together (that is, /uu/ and /ii/ are allowed but * /ui/ and * /iu/ are not).[21] These two phenomena account for three long vowels and four diphthongs:[22]

Vowel Example Gloss

Sociolinguistic variation

Jamaican Patois features a creole continuum (or a linguistic continuum):[23][24][25] the variety of the language closest to the lexifier language (the acrolect) cannot be distinguished systematically from intermediate varieties (collectively referred to as the mesolect) or even from the most divergent rural varieties (collectively referred to as the basilect).[26] This situation came about with contact between speakers of a number of Niger–Congo languages and various dialects of English, the latter of which were all perceived as prestigious and the use of which carried socio-economic benefits.[27] The span of a speaker's command of the continuum generally corresponds to social context.[28]


The tense/aspect system of Jamaican Patois is fundamentally unlike that of English. There are no morphological marked past participles; instead, two different participle words exist: en and a. These are not verbs, but simply invariant particles that cannot stand alone like the English to be. Their function also differs from English.

According to Bailey (1966), the progressive category is marked by /a~da~de/. Alleyne (1980) claims that /a~da/ marks the progressive and that the habitual aspect is unmarked but by its accompaniment with words such as "always", "usually", etc. (i.e. is absent as a grammatical category). Mufwene (1984) and Gibson and Levy (1984) propose a past-only habitual category marked by /juusta/ as in /weɹ wi juusta liv iz not az kuol az iiɹ/ ('where we used to live is not as cold as here').[29]

For the present tense, an uninflected verb combining with an iterative adverb marks habitual meaning as in /tam aawez nuo wen kieti tel pan im/ ('Tom always knows when Katy tells/has told about him').[30]

  • en is a tense indicator
  • a is an aspect marker
  • (a) go is used to indicate the future
  • /mi ɹon/
    • I run (habitually); I ran
  • /mi a ɹon/ or /mi de ɹon/
    • I am running
  • /a ɹon mi dida ɹon/ or /a ɹon mi ben(w)en a ɹon/
    • I was running
  • /mi did ɹon/ or /mi ben(w)en ɹon/
    • I have run; I had run
  • /mi a ɡo ɹon/
    • I am going to run; I will run

Like other Caribbean Creoles (that is, Guyanese Creole and San Andrés-Providencia Creole; Sranan Tongo is excluded) /fi/ has a number of functions, including:[31]

  • Directional, dative, or benefactive preposition
    • /dem a fait fi wi/ ('They are fighting for us')[32]
  • Genitive preposition (that is, marker of possession)
    • /dat a fi mi buk/ ('that's my book')
  • Modal auxiliary expressing obligation or futurity
    • /im fi kom op ja/ ('he ought to come up here')
  • Pre-infinitive complementizer
    • /unu hafi kiip samtiŋ faɹ de ɡini piipl-dem fi biit dem miuzik/ ('you have to contribute something to the Guinean People for playing their music')[33]

Pronominal system

The pronominal system of Standard English has a four-way distinction of person, number, gender and case. Some varieties of Jamaican Patois do not have the gender or case distinction, but all varieties distinguish between the second person singular and plural (you).[34]

  • I, me = /mi/
  • you, you (singular) = /ju/
  • he, him = /im/ (pronounced [ĩ] in the basilect varieties)
  • she, her = /ʃi/ or /im/ (no gender distinction in basilect varieties)
  • we, us, our = /wi/
  • you (plural) = /unu/
  • they, them, their = /dem/


  • the Jamaican Patois equative verb is also a
    • e.g. /mi a di tiitʃa/ ('I am the teacher')
  • Jamaican Patois has a separate locative verb deh
    • e.g. /wi de a london/ or /wi de inna london/ ('we are in London')
  • with true adjectives in Jamaican Patois, no copula is needed
    • e.g. /mi haadbak nau/ ('I am old now')

This is akin to Spanish in that both have 2 distinct forms of the verb "to be" – ser and estar – in which ser is equative and estar is locative. Other languages, such as Portuguese and Italian, make a similar distinction. (See Romance Copula.)


  • /no/ is used as a present tense negator:
    • /if kau no did nuo au im tɹuotuol tan im udn tʃaans pieɹsiid/ ('If the cow knew that his throat wasn't capable of swallowing a pear seed, he wouldn't have swallowed it')[35]
  • /kiaan/ is used in the same way as English can't
    • /it a puoɹ tiŋ dat kiaan maʃ ant/ ('It is a poor thing that can't mash an ant')[36]
  • /neva/ is a negative past participle.[37]
    • /dʒan neva tiif di moni/ ('John did not steal the money')


Patois has long been written with various respellings compared to English so that, for example, the word "there" might be written de, deh, or dere, and the word "three" as tree, tri, or trii. Standard English spelling is often used and a nonstandard spelling sometimes becomes widespread even though it is neither phonetic nor standard (e.g. pickney for /pikni/, 'child').

In 2002, the Jamaican Language Unit was set up at the University of the West Indies at Mona to begin standardizing the language, with the aim of supporting non-English-speaking Jamaicans according to their constitutional guarantees of equal rights, as services of the state are normally provided in English, which a significant portion of the population cannot speak fluently. The vast majority of such persons are speakers of Jamaican Patois. It was argued that failure to provide services of the state in a language in such general use or discriminatory treatment by officers of the state based on the inability of a citizen to use English violates the rights of citizens. The proposal was made that freedom from discrimination on the ground of language be inserted into the Charter of Rights.[38] They standardized the Jamaican alphabet as follows:[39]

Short vowels
Long vowels

Nasal vowels are written with -hn, as in kyaahn (can't) and iihn (isn't it?)


h is written according to local pronunciation, so that hen (hen) and en (end) are distinguished in writing for speakers of western Jamaican, but not for those of central Jamaican.


Jamaican Patois contains many loanwords, most of which are African in origin, primarily from Twi (a dialect of Akan).[40]

Many loanwords come from English, but are also borrowed from Spanish, Portuguese, Hindi, Arawak and African languages as well as Scottish and Irish dialects.

Examples from African languages include /se/ meaning that (in the sense of "he told me that..." = /im tel mi se/), taken from Ashanti Twi, and Duppy meaning ghost, taken from the Twi word dupon ('cotton tree root'), because of the African belief of malicious spirits originating in the root of trees (in Jamaica and Ghana, particularly the cotton tree known in both places as "Odom").[41] The pronoun /unu/, used for the plural form of you, is taken from the Igbo language. Red eboe describes a fair-skinned black person because of the reported account of fair skin among the Igbo in the mid 1700s.[42] De meaning to be(at a location) comes from Yoruba.[43] From the Ashanti-Akan, comes the term Obeah which means witchcraft, from the Ashanti Twi word Ɔbayi which also means "witchcraft".[40]

Words from Hindi include ganja (marijuana), and janga (crawdad). Pickney or pickiney meaning child, taken from an earlier form (piccaninny) was ultimately borrowed from the Portuguese pequenino (the diminutive of pequeno, small) or Spanish pequeño ('small').

There are many words referring to popular produce and food items—ackee, callaloo, guinep, bammy, roti, dal, kamranga. See Jamaican cuisine.

Jamaican Patois has its own rich variety of swearwords. One of the strongest is blood claat (along with related forms raas claat, bomba claat, claat and others—compare with bloody in Australian English and British English, which is also considered a profanity).

Homosexual men may be referred to with the pejorative term /biips/[44], fish [45]or batty boys.

Example phrases

  • /mi aalmuos lik im/ – I nearly hit him[46]
  • /im caan biit mi, im dʒos loki dat im won/ – He can't beat me, he simply got lucky and won.[47]
  • /siin/ – Affirmative particle[48]
  • /papiˈʃuo/ – Foolish exhibition, a person who makes a foolish exhibition of him or herself, or an exclamation of surprise.[49]
  • /uman/ – Woman[50]
  • /bwoi/ – Boy[51]

Literature and film

A rich body of literature has developed in Jamaican Patois. Notable among early authors and works are Thomas MacDermot's All Jamaica Library and Claude McKay's Songs of Jamaica (1909), and, more recently, dub poets Linton Kwesi Johnson and Mikey Smith. Subsequently, the life-work of Louise Bennett or Miss Lou (1919–2006) is particularly notable for her use of the rich colorful patois, despite being shunned by traditional literary groups. "The Jamaican Poetry League excluded her from its meetings, and editors failed to include her in anthologies."[52] Nonetheless, she argued forcefully for the recognition of Jamaican as a full language, with the same pedigree as the dialect from which Standard English had sprung:

Dah language weh yuh proud a,

Weh yuh honour an respec –

Po Mas Charlie, yuh no know se

Dat it spring from dialec!

Bans a Killin

After the 1960s, the status of Jamaican Patois rose as a number of respected linguistic studies were published, by Frederic Cassidy (1961, 1967), Bailey (1966) and others.[53] Subsequently, it has gradually become mainstream to codemix or write complete pieces in Jamaican Patois; proponents include Kamau Brathwaite, who also analyses the position of Creole poetry in his History of the Voice: The Development of Nation Language in Anglophone Caribbean Poetry (1984). However, Standard English remains the more prestigious literary medium in Jamaican literature. Canadian-Caribbean science-fiction novelist Nalo Hopkinson often writes in Trinidadian and sometimes Jamaican Patois. Jean D'Costa penned a series of popular children's novels, including Sprat Morrison (1972; 1990), Escape to Last Man Peak (1976), and Voice in the Wind (1978), which draw liberally from Jamaican Patois for dialogue, while presenting narrative prose in Standard English.[54] Marlon James employs Patois in his novels including A Brief History of Seven Killings (2014). In his science fiction novel Kaya Abaniah and the Father of the Forest (2015), British-Trinidadian author Wayne Gerard Trotman presents dialogue in Trinidadian Creole, Jamaican Patois, and French while employing Standard English for narrative prose.

Jamaican Patois is also presented in some films and other media, for example, the character Tia Dalma's speech from Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, and a few scenes in Meet Joe Black in which Brad Pitt's character converses with a Jamaican woman. In addition, early Jamaican films like The Harder They Come (1972), Rockers (1978), and many of the films produced by Palm Pictures in the mid-1990s (e.g. Dancehall Queen and Third World Cop) have most of their dialogue in Jamaican Patois; some of these films have even been subtitled in English.


In December 2011, it was reported that the Bible was being translated into Jamaican Patois. The Gospel of St Luke has already appeared as: Jiizas: di Buk We Luuk Rait bout Im. While the Rev. Courtney Stewart, managing the translation as General Secretary of the West Indies Bible Society, believes this will help elevate the status of Jamaican Patois, others think that such a move would undermine efforts at promoting the use of English. The Patois New Testament was launched in Britain (where the Jamaican diaspora is significant) in October 2012 as "Di Jamiekan Nyuu Testiment", and with print and audio versions in Jamaica in December 2012.[55][56][57]

A comparison of the Lord's Prayer

See also


  1. Chang, Laurence. "Jumieka Langwij: Aatagrafi/Jamaican Language: Orthography".
  2. Jamaican Patois at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  3. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Jamaican Creole English". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  4. Cassidy FG: Multiple etymologies in Jamaican Creole. Am Speech 1966, 41:211–215
  5. Brown-Blake 2008, p. 32.
  6. DeCamp (1961:82)
  7. Vellupillai 2015, pp. 481.
  8. Brown-Blake 2008, p. ?.
  9. Mark Sebba (1993), London Jamaican, London: Longman.
  10. Lars Hinrichs (2006), Codeswitching on the Web: English and Jamaican Creole in E-Mail Communication. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: Benjamins.
  11. Devonish & Harry (2004:456)
  12. Velupillai 2015, p. 483.
  13. Harry (2006:127)
  14. Harry (2006:126–127)
  15. Harry (2006:126)
  16. also transcribed as [kʲ] and [ɡʲ]
  17. such as Cassidy & Le Page (1980:xxxix)
  18. such as Harry (2006)
  19. Devonish & Harry (2004:458)
  20. Cassidy (1971:40)
  21. Harry (2006:128–129)
  22. Harry (2006:128)
  23. Rickford (1987:?)
  24. Meade (2001:19)
  25. Patrick (1999:6)
  26. Irvine-Sobers GA (2018). The acrolect in Jamaica: The architecture of phonological variation (pdf). Berlin: Language Science Press. doi:10.5281/zenodo.1306618. ISBN 978-3-96110-114-6.
  27. Irvine (2004:42)
  28. DeCamp (1977:29)
  29. Gibson (1988:199)
  30. Mufwene (1984:218) cited in Gibson (1988:200)
  31. Winford (1985:589)
  32. Bailey (1966:32)
  33. Patrick (1995:244)
  34. Patrick (2007:?)
  35. Lawton (1984:126) translates this as "If the cow didn't know that his throat was capable of swallowing a pear seed, he wouldn't have swallowed it."
  36. Lawton (1984:125)
  37. Irvine (2004:43–44)
  38. "The Jamaican Language Unit, The University of West Indies at Mona".
  39. "Handout: Spelling Jamaican the Jamaican way".
  40. Williams, Joseph J. (1932). Voodoos and Obeahs:Phrases of West Indian Witchcraft. Library of Alexandria. p. 90. ISBN 1-4655-1695-6.
  41. Williams, Joseph J. (1934). Psychic Phenomena of Jamaica. The Dial Press. p. 156. ISBN 1-4655-1450-3.
  42. Cassidy, Frederic Gomes; Robert Brock Le Page (2002). A Dictionary of Jamaican English (2nd ed.). University of the West Indies Press. p. 168. ISBN 976-640-127-6. Retrieved 2008-11-24.
  43. McWhorter, John H. (2000). The Missing Spanish Creoles: Recovering the Birth of Plantation Contact Languages. University of California Press. p. 77. ISBN 0-520-21999-6. Retrieved 2008-11-29.
  44. Patrick (1995:234)
  45. http://jamaicanpatwah.com/term/Fish/1239
  46. Patrick (1995:248)
  47. Hancock (1985:237)
  48. Patrick (1995:253)
  49. Hancock (1985:190)
  50. Cassidy & Le Page (1980:lxii)
  51. Devonish & Harry (2004:467)
  52. Ramazani (2003:15)
  53. Alison Donnell, Sarah Lawson Welsh (eds), The Routledge Reader in Caribbean Literature, Routledge, 2003, Introduction, p. 9.
  54. Bridget Jones (1994). "Duppies and other Revenants: with particular reference to the use of the supernatural in Jean D'Costa's work". In Vera Mihailovich-Dickman (ed.). "Return" in Post-colonial Writing: A Cultural Labyrinth. Rodopi. pp. 23–32. ISBN 9051836481.
  55. Pigott, Robert (25 December 2011). "Jamaica's patois Bible: The word of God in creole". BBC News. Retrieved 28 September 2018.
  56. The Associated Press (8 December 2012). "Jamaican patois Bible released "Nyuu Testiment"". Colorado Springs Gazette. Archived from the original on December 11, 2012. Retrieved 8 December 2012. For patois expert Hubert Devonish, a linguist who is coordinator of the Jamaican Language Unit at the University of the West Indies, the Bible translation is a big step toward getting the state to eventually embrace the creole language created by slaves.
  57. Di Jamiekan Nyuu Testiment (Jamaican Diglot New Testament with KJV), British & Foreign Bible Society. Retrieved 24 March 2013.
  58. "Matyu 6 Di Jamiekan Nyuu Testiment". bible.com. Bible Society of the West Indies. 2012. Retrieved 2014-10-22.


  • Alleyne, Mervyn C. (1980). Comparative Afro-American: An Historical Comparative Study of English-based Afro-American Dialects of the New World. Koroma.
  • Bailey, Beryl, L (1966). Jamaican Creole Syntax. Cambridge University Press.
  • Brown-Blake, Celia (2008). "The right to linguistic non-discrimination and Creole language situations". Journal of Pidgin and Creole Languages. 23: 32–74.
  • Cassidy, Frederic (1971). Jamaica Talk: Three Hundred Years of English Language in Jamaica. London: MacMillan Caribbean.
  • Cassidy, Frederic; Le Page, R. B. (1980). Dictionary of Jamaican English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • DeCamp, David (1961), "Social and geographic factors in Jamaican dialects", in Le Page, R. B. (ed.), Creole Language Studies, London: Macmillan, pp. 61–84
  • DeCamp, David (1977), "The Development of Pidgin and Creole Studies", in Valdman, A. (ed.), Pidgin and Creole Linguistics, Bloomington: Indiana University Press
  • Devonish, H; Harry, Otelamate G. (2004), "Jamaican phonology", in Kortman, B.; Shneider E. W. (eds.), A Handbook of Varieties of English, phonology, 1, Berlin: Mouton De Gruyter, pp. 441–471
  • Gibson, Kean (1988), "The Habitual Category in Guyanese and Jamaican Creoles", American Speech, 63 (3): 195–202, doi:10.2307/454817
  • Hancock, Ian (1985), "More on Poppy Show", American Speech, 60 (2): 189–192, doi:10.2307/455318
  • Harry, Otelemate G. (2006), "Jamaican Creole", Journal of the International Phonetic Association, 36 (1): 125–131, doi:10.1017/S002510030600243X
  • Ramazani, Jahan; Ellmann, and Robert O'Clair, eds, Richard (2003). The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry, Third Edition. 2: Contemporary Poetry. Norton. ISBN 0-393-97792-7.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link) CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  • Irvine, Alison (2004), "A Good Command of the English Language: Phonological Variation in the Jamaican Acrolect", Journal of Pidgin and Creole Languages, 19 (1): 41–76, doi:10.1075/jpcl.19.1.03irv
  • Lawton, David (1984), "Grammar of the English-Based Jamaican Proverb", American Speech, 2: 123–130, doi:10.2307/455246
  • Meade, R.R. (2001). Acquisition of Jamaican Phonology. Dordrecht: Holland Institute of Linguistics.
  • Patrick, Peter L. (1995), "Recent Jamaican Words in Sociolinguistic Context", American Speech, 70 (3): 227–264, doi:10.2307/455899
  • Patrick, Peter L. (1999). Urban Jamaican Creole: Variation in the Mesolect. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: Benjamins.
  • Patrick, Peter L. (2007), "Jamaican Patwa (English Creole)", Journal of Pidgin and Creole Languages, Battlebridge Publications, 24 (1)
  • Rickford, John R. (1987). Dimensions of a Creole Continuum: History, Texts, Linguistic Analysis of Guyanese. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • Vellupillai, Viveka (2015), Pidgins, Creoles & Mixed Languages, John Benjamins Publishing Company, ISBN 9789027252715</ref>
  • Winford, Donald (1985), "The Syntax of Fi Complements in Caribbean English Creole", Language, 61 (3): 588–624, doi:10.2307/414387

Further reading

  • Adams, L. Emilie (1991). Understanding Jamaican Patois. Kingston: LMH. ISBN 976-610-155-8.
  • Chang, Larry (2014). Biesik Jumiekan: Introduction to Jamaican Language. Washington, DC: Chuu Wod. ISBN 978-0-9773391-8-1.
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