I am now convinced that Jamaican Patois is a Language

For most of my life I never thought of Jamaican patois/patwa as a language. Like many Jamaicans, patois/patwa to me was either talking bad or  a dialect.  When I started in Jamaicans.com 1995, we created patois/patwa sound clips and a patois/patwa dictionary. I was providing information on patois but I never thought of patois/patwa as a language. Even when the email inquires would come from all over the world about speaking Jamaican; I would deny it being a language.  I would correct the person saying there is no Jamaican language and explain that patois/patwa is an English dialect. In many cases I would get emails asking to translate a Standard English sentence to patois/patwa. I was confused why they would not understand that it is not a language and some words did not have a patois/patwa equivalent. .  Today I am here to say I have made a  180 degree turn.  Jamaican patois/patwa is a language. So what has convinced me?  Here are just a few brief encounters that helped to change my mind.

Jamaican Patois is a Language
Jamaican Patois is a Language

A conversation with a friend, who is a linguist, was the first to erode my strong foundation that patois/patwa is not a language. I started with the typical argument. There is no structure to Jamaican patois/patwa. There is no correct written form. There is no proper grammar. There are no rules. I always seem to win on this.  He responded explaining that all languages started like that before there was print. He explained that paper and the print lead the way for grammar rules and structure. He explained that all languages have another base language. The bottom-line was that any form of communication is a language. It was a convincing argument but I was still not fully ready to grasp Jamaican patois/patwa as a language. My response however to users who asked about Jamaican language changed. I would n longer try correcting them about it being a dialect.

Last year I received an email from a gentleman in Costa Rica (I wrote about this in my blog). We had just started to include patois/patwa videos of standard English stories  on Jamaicans.com .  This gentleman’s grandfather was Jamaican and he wanted to learn to speak the Jamaican language. He was adamant it was a language and he needed to learn it before he could visit Jamaica. Then he made a revelation that would again chip away at my foundation of denying patois/patwa as a language.  He said, in Costa Rica patois/patwa is called “Mekatelyu” (make I tell you or let me tell you) and it is prevalent in some communities that have strong Jamaican descendants. He explained that there was a town called Jamaica Town that was later renamed Barrio Roosevelt.  I asked a friend who lived in Costa Rica about “Mekatelyu” he confirmed it true.

Next was the final blow to my foundation. I met a few Panamanians who spoke patois/patwa. I know that may not sound mind boggling but every word they spoke was patois/patwa. There was no English base. They told me that in some community the people do not understand or speak English but they speak patois/patwa. Every word was in patois/patwa. There is no “sprinkling” of Standard English words in their speech.  The pronunciations were changed to patois/patwa. Everything was in patois/patwa. I could not grasp that concept. I asked a few other Panamanians I knew who were from Jamaican decent. They were shocked that I did not know this. You see we speak patois/patwa with sprinklings of Standard English.  He used an example:“I-an bud” (Iron bird) which means “a plane”. They do not see patois/patwa as a slang or “bad English”. To them it is a full blown language.

I did some further research and came up on a letter sent to the Gleaner  from a Jamaican who was studying in Russia. He explained that his roommates were Latin American and he was worried they could not communicate. He did not know Spanish. To his amazement once he started speaking patois/patwa they were able to communicate.  (See the letter at the end of this article)

I challenged my Panamanians friends and they spoke a “raw” patois/patwa with no real sprinkling of Standard English pronunciation. The told me about St Andres an island off the coast Nicaragua and Costa Rica that they also spoke patois/patwa.

I could not “wrap my mind” around this but as I dug deeper and met with a few people from Panama and I found more evidence of it.

Many of us will cling to idea that English is the base language, that patois/patwa has no structure and is not a language. I was one of those skeptics.  I am not one of those skeptics anymore. Patois/patwa is a language.



I AM in agreement with Chester Burgess on the issue of educated people sounding and I may add talking educated. I continue to disagree, however, with his position on Patois, our Jamaican language. It is always difficult to endorse something that is not widespread or create difficulties, especially when communicating with others.
English is good or for that matter good, well spoken English is even better. We have to educate our people to speak English, but we should never abandon our own language. I may be one of the ‘yahoolists’, but Patois does have its place in Jamaican social life. Imagine singing our lovely folk songs in standard English, a most boring experience to say the least.
I have an experience that I would like to share with Mr. Burgess, which could open his mind to think of the value of Patois. In 1980, I was living in the former Soviet Union. I was with a group of students from Central and South America. None could speak English and I had very limited abilities in speaking Spanish. The group consisted of six students from Nicaragua, Panama and Costa Rica. I was introduced to the group and the six students from these countries wanted to speak to me.
I indicated that I could not speak Spanish and would like to have the interpreter, so that we could talk about our respective countries. One member of the group started speaking in Patois; the others joined in and for the next ten months we communicated in Patois, pure Jamaican Patois. They all new Patois because their great-grandparents were immigrants from Jamaica and had settled in Panama, Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Patois was our means of communication and it made my stay among these Spanish-speaking students more enjoyable and rewarding.
I hope Mr. Burgess will continue to defend the English language and give us lessons similar to that which he gave in The Gleaner on August 16, 2001. Keep up the good work, but please remember the words of Bob Marley ” yu running and yu running and yu running away… but can’t run away from yourself.”
I am etc.,
Poughkeepsie, N.Y.