Is Patois Doomed in a Global World?

I think that Jamaican patois is a language. There, I said it, and I will patiently accept the abuse the remark is sure to bring me.

Bear with me while I quote an example of Jamaican folk poetry to support my contention:

Wanday me dahcum fram Grantam
Wanday mi dahcum fram Grantam
Wanday mi dahcum fram Grantam
Wan soljabway cumcall mi.
Guway, guway mi yungmon.
Guway, guway mi yungmon
Sappoze a no ben fi mi maddarinlaw,
Who wudda mine de baby?
Im gimme wan cockyeye fourbit
Mi tekki mi buy wan silk dress.
Mi washi mi starchi mi ianni,
Mi angi panni pingwing bawda
Runnim dung Jermiah, go tekkiweh
Runnim dung Jeremiah go tekkiweh
Runnim dung Jeremiah go tekkiweh
Yunnoh seeim a hawli galangdeh.

I know, I know. I spelled everything wrong. But I don’t know the formal spelling conventions of patois, if any have been created since I was at school.

If I used “correct” spelling, an alert reader could make out the English roots of many of the words in the example I quoted. The poem would read something like this:

One day me da come from Grantham, one soldier boy come call me, etc.

But that would not reflect the spoken words. Not to me, anyway. And it would completely miss the rhythm and cadence of that beautiful Jamaican folk verse.

Yes, I enjoy the beauty of Jamaican patois, when it is used to express gentle thoughts, and I acknowledge the power of Jamaican patois when it is used to express anger or frustration.

So it is with deep sadness that I must tell my fellow-Jamaicans that it is time to learn formal English. The comments quoted in the Gleaner and Observer newspapers are often in such broad patois that overseas readers must be baffled. The writer might as well have left the space blank for all the meaning the quotes convey.

The problem is not just Jamaica’s. Throughout the “English-speaking” world, the language has disintegrated into a plethora of diverse argots. An inner-city youth from New York can hardly converse intelligibly with a “Valley” girl from California. In England, only knowledgeable people understand Cockney. (It’s even harder to figure out the versions of English spoken in Australia, Malaysia, the Caribbean, India, Singapore, and the rest of the erstwhile British Empire.)

And in this global society, where the Internet provides cross-cultural access to information, the importance of a common language is critical. I think that common language is – or will be – English. And not just any kind of English; I see a form of Global English emerging.

One characteristic of the new language is a preponderance of Latin-based words.

For generations, writers have been told to use short Anglo-Saxon words and avoid their longer Latin-based or Greek-based similes. But that makes no sense in Global English. The Latin or Greek word is far more recognizable around the globe.
For example, should we use “show” – or “indicate”? No one but an anglophone would recognize “show,” short though it may be. Speakers of many languages would recognize “indicate” – or at least its Latin root. In French, for example, “indication” is “indication.” In Spanish, “indicative” becomes “indicativo.” In Italian, “indicative” is unchanged.

And what about languages that are not derived from Latin? German, for instance? Surprise! The English word, “indicative” becomes “indikativ.” Not much change there, either.

For generations, all cultures have been absorbing words with Latin or Greek roots. Abstract words, especially, have been coined from Latin or Greek – in any language. Latin is the language of law – anywhere. It is also the universal language of medicine. And academia has embraced the polysyllabic majesty of the Romance languages.

Read a sampling of business letters, and you will find “prior to” a dozen times for every instance of “before.” And you know what “priority” is in Spanish? Prioridad – a lot closer to English than “antes” or “delante”(the Spanish versions of “before”).

Perhaps, some day “The Last Picture Show” will become “The Ultimate Cinematic Presentation.” It doesn’t quite have the same music, but what the heck? More global customers will understand it.

Meanwhile, breddrin, oonoo walk good, nuh? An’ mek de pickney dem buckle dung an’ learn English!

George Graham is a Jamaican-born writer who has worked as a reporter in the Caribbean and North America for more than half a century. He lives in Lakeland, Florida. His books are available at:

About the author

George Graham