My Big Fat Jamaican Wedding

Counting down to the big day

Making Patois Official

on April 23, 2012

About 15 years ago, I went to Jamaica for the very first time.  My late Aunt Hilma drove my sister, my cousins, and I out of the capital Kingston through the bush to visit the parish of our roots, St. Ann.  I remember this trip vividly being my first taste of the rural communities of Jamaica.  We sang in the car and took memorable photos along the way.  I remember speaking with boys who lived in the vicinity of the house in which my father grew up and I could not understand what they were saying.  They spoke very fast in a Jamaican way that was familiar but sooooo different from what I had heard before.

One thing I remembered was a sign advertising produce for sale.  COOCOOMBA, it read, or CUCUMBERS.  (I laughed hysterically realizing that the word was written exactly the way you would say it.  I had never seen patois written out on a sign.)  I realized then that patois was not only spoken but could be written officially too.

What is patois?  Patois or patwa is a creolized language.  It is what happened in the seventeenth century when two languages collided– English, spoken by English, Scottish, and Hiberno-English slave masters and Niger-Congo languages spoken by slaves.  Patois has its own grammatical structure, inventive spelling, and vocabulary including many loanwords borrowed from  SpanishPortugueseHindiArawak and African languages as well as Irish.

I borrowed these sample phrases from wikipedia.  They are written out phonetically.

Example phrases

  • Three men swam.
    • /tɹi man did a suim/
  • I nearly hit him
    • /a didn mek dʒuok fi lik im/
  • He can’t beat me, he simply got lucky and won.
    • /im kiaan biit mi, a dʒos bokop im bokop an win/
  • Those children are disobedient
    • /dem pikni de aad iez/
  • /siin/ – Affirmative particle
  • /papiˈʃuo/ – Foolish exhibition, a person who makes a foolish exhibition of themself, or an exclamation of surprise
  • /uman/ woman
  • /buai/ boy

The late Louise Bennett-Coverley, better known as Miss Lou, was Jamaica’s cultural ambassador.  A folklorist, writer, and educator, she popularized, reclaimed, and legitimated Patois as a language and not a dialect or bastardization of English.

Miss Lou, Jamaica's beloved Cultural Ambassador

She performed her poetry and songs in Patois often referring to English as the dialect.  English is a fusion of dialects of Old English and other languages along with Anglo-Saxon, Roman, and Norse languages.  I love Miss Lou poems.  They are fun to listen to and to read.  I taught a Miss Lou poem to my Grade One students which they memorized immediately and then were able to recite on the announcements.  Just like I did when I was a child, they loved to say patois words.

I am so happy that these days Patois is gaining legitimacy.  It is widely spoken in Jamaica and other parts of the world where Jamaicans reside.  Patois joins other languages spoken in Jamaica such as Standard English, Jamaican English, and language and vocabulary of the Rastafari community.

In fact, Patois can be studied at York University here in Toronto.  Click here for more details.

Imagine my excitement and surprise when I saw this WestJet advertisement on a bus shelter in Toronto.


The nice thing about Patois is that you would write it exactly the way you would pronounce the word.  There are no silent letters or surprises.  It’s not as difficult to learn as Standard English that’s probably why you hear everyone who can speak Patois in Jamaica and abroad– in the country, in the city, and newcomers to Jamaica.

“Yeah mon!” is the most stereotyped phrase that people say when trying to speak Patois.  But why stop there?  There are so many other things you can say.  Take a quick crash course by visiting this site, Speak Jamaican


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