cardinal numeral

Jamaican (language)

Jamaican Patois, also known locally as Patois (Patwa), or simply Jamaican, and called Jamaican Creole by linguists, is an English/African-based language—not to be confused with Jamaican English nor with the Rastafarian use of English—used primarily in Jamaica and the Jamaican diaspora. This language 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 their masters: British Englishes (including significant exposure to Scottish English) and Hiberno English. Jamaican Patois is a post-creole speech continuum (a linguistic continuum)—meaning that 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) nor even from the most divergent rural varieties (collectively referred to as the basilect). Jamaicans themselves usually refer to their language as patois, a French term without a precise linguistic definition.

Significant Jamaican-speaking communities exist among Jamaican expatriates in Miami, New York City, Toronto, Hartford, Washington, D.C., Brazil, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama (in the Caribbean coast), and London. 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 Basilectal Belizean Creole. Jamaican Patois exists mostly as a spoken language. Although standard British English is used for most writing in Jamaica, Jamaican 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.

Jamaican pronunciation and vocabulary are significantly different from English, despite heavy use of English words or derivatives. A native speaker of a non-Caribbean English dialect can only understand a heavily accented Jamaican speaker if he/she speaks slowly and forgoes the use of the many idioms that are common in Jamaican. Jamaican Patois displays similarities to the pidgin and creole languages of West Africa, due to their common descent from the blending of African substrate languages with European languages.

Many Jamaican words derive from certain African languages. Pluralization of nouns is done by either pre-posing any cardinal numeral greater than one (1) e.g. ('the five birds') or post-posing the plural marker /dem/, as in ('the birds'). Similarly, verb tense is specified using pre-posed tense markers , ('I swam' or 'I (habitually) swim'), ('I am going to swim'), 'I had swum', ('I have to swim'), etc.


Accounts of basilectal Jamaican Patois postulate around 21 phonemic consonants and between 9 and 16 vowels.

Labial Alveolar Post-
Palatal2 Velar Glottal
Nasal m n ɲ
Fricative   ʃ (h)1
Approximant ɹ j w
Lateral l

  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 Eastern varieties, the presence of [h] in a word is in free variation with no consonant so that the words for 'hand' and 'and' (both underlyingly /an/) may be pronounced as [han] or [an].
  2. The palatal stops and [ɲ] are considered phonemic by some accounts and phonetic by others. For the latter interpretation, their appearance is included in the larger phenomenon of phonetic palatalization.

Examples of palatalization include:

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

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

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 /aigl̩/.

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). These two phenomena account for three long vowels and four diphthongs:

Vowel Example Gloss
/ii/ /biini/ 'tiny'
/aa/ /baaba/ 'barber'
/uu/ /buut/ 'booth'
/ia/ /biak/ 'bake'
/ai/ /baik/ 'bike'
/ua/ /buat/ 'boat'
/au/ /taun/ 'town'

Sociolinguistic variation

Jamaican Patois is a creole language that exhibits a gradation between more conservative creole forms and forms virtually identical to Standard English (i.e. metropolitan Standard English). This situation came about with contact between speakers of a number of Niger-Congo languages and various dialects of English, the latter of which which were all perceived as prestigious and the use of which carried socio-economic rewards. The span of a speaker's command of the continuum generally corresponds to the variety of social situations that they situate themselves in.


The tense/aspect system of Jamaican Patois is fundamentally unlike that of English. There are no morphological marked past tense forms corresponding to English -ed -t. There are two preverbial particles: 'en' and 'a'. These are not verbs, they are simply invariant particles which cannot stand alone like the English ‘to be’. Their function also differs from the 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 verbs like '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 ('where we used to live is not as cold as here')

For the present tense, an uninflected verb combining with an iterative adverb marks habitual meaning as in ('Tom always knows when Katy tells/has told about him').

  • 'en' is a 'tense indicator'
  • 'a' is an 'aspect marker'
  • '(a) go' is used to indicate the future
    • I run (habitually); I ran
  • or
    • I am running
  • or
    • I was running
  • or
    • I have run; I had run
    • I am going to run; I will run

Like other Caribbean Creoles (that is, Guyanese Creole and Providence Island Creole; Sranan Tongo is excluded) /fi/ has a number of functions, including:

  • Directional, dative, or benefactlve preposition
    • ('They are fighting for us')
  • Genitive preposition (that is, marker of possession)
    • ('that's my book')
  • Modal auxiliary expressing obligation or futurity
    • ('he ought to come up here')
  • Pre-infinitive complementizer
    • ('you have to contribute something to the Guinean People for playing their music')

The 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, though most do; but usefully, it does distinguish between the second person singular and plural (you).

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


  • the Jamaican Patois equative verb is also 'a'
    • e.g. ('I am the teacher')
  • Jamaican Patois has a separate locative verb 'deh'
    • e.g. or ('we are in London')
  • with true adjectives in Jamaican Patois, no copula is needed
    • e.g. ('I am old now')


  • /no/ is used as a present tense negator:
    • ('If the cow didn't know that his throat was capable of swallowing a pear seed, he wouldn't have swallowed it')
  • /kiaan/ is used in the same way as English can't
    • ('It is a poor thing that can't mash an ant')
  • /neva/ is a negative past participle.
    • ('John did not steal the money')


Because Jamaican Patois is a non-standard language, there is no standard or official way of writing it. For example, the word 'there' can be written 'de', 'deh' or 'dere'; and the word 'three' is most commonly spelt 'tree', but it can be spelt 'tri' or 'trii' to distinguish it from the noun tree. Often, Standard English spellings are used even when words are pronounced differently. Other times, a spelling has become widespread even though it is neither phonetic nor standard (eg. 'pickney' = 'child'; in this case the spelling 'pikni' would be more phonetic). However, due to increased use on the Internet (such as in E-mail) in recent years, a user-driven process of partial standardization has been taking place.


Jamaican Patois contains many loanwords. Primarily these come from English, but are also borrowed from Spanish, Portuguese, Hindi, Arawak and African languages. Examples from African languages include /dopi/ meaning 'ghost', from the Twi word adope; "obeah", also from Twi, meaning a type of African spell-casting or witchcraft (and also used as a popular scapegoat for common woes); /se/ meaning 'that' (in the sense of "he told me that..." = ), taken from a West African language; the pronoun /unu/, used for "you (plural)", from Igbo. Words from Hindi include "nuh", "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"). It may also be borrowed from the Nigerian pidgin word for child, "Pickin".

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 bloodclaat (along with related forms raasclaat, bomboclaat, pussyclaat and others - compare with "bloody" in Australian English, which is not considered swearing). Homosexual men are referred to as /biips/ or batty boys.

Example phrases

  • Three men swam.
  • I nearly hit him
  • He can't beat me, he simply got lucky and won.
  • Those children are disobedient
  • What are you doing?
  • /siin/ - Affirmative particle
  • /papiˈʃuo/ - Foolish exhibition, a person who makes a foolish exhibition of themself, or an exclamation of surprise.
  • /dem/ 'them' (also indicates plural when placed after a noun)
  • /se/ 'that' (conjunction for relative clauses)
  • /disia/ 'this' (used before nouns)
  • /ooman/ 'woman'
  • /buai/ 'boy'
  • /gial/ 'girl'


A rich body of literature has developed in Jamaican Patois. Notable among early authors are Thomas MacDermot's All Jamaica Library and Claude McKay's Songs of Jamaica (1909). Subsequently, the life-work of Louise Bennett or Miss Lou (1919-2006), is particularly notable in her use of the rich colourful 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. 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!
(from Bans a Killin)

After the 1960s, the status of Jamaican rose as a number of respected linguistic studies by Cassidy (1961,1967), Bailey (1966) and others . Subsequently, it has gradually become mainstream to codemix or write complete pieces in Jamaican Patois and proponents include Kamau Brathwaite, who also analyzes 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.

See also

Examples of other Caribbean and African creoles



External links

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