Jamaican Pat’wa (Patois) Language – A Tale of Class & Culture

Modern Jamaica Today 4
Reading Time: 5 minutes

Internationally, Pat’wa represents the people, music and culture of Jamaica, but for visitors to the island, learning it can be a small challenge, as knowledge of local culture is often needed to understand the meaning.

Many people are surprised to find that Jamaica’s official language is actually Standard English and that this tiny island nation is the 7th largest English speaking country in the world!

The majority of Jamaicans are descended at least partially from the many Africans who were enslaved and transported to the island.

Jamaica also has sizeable numbers of Whites and Mulattoes, persons of Syrian/Lebanese descent, and a large population of Chinese and East Indians, many of whom have intermixed throughout the generations. Mixed-race Jamaicans are the second largest racial group after Black Jamaicans.

Throughout Jamaica, Standard English is the language of business, law, education, religion and government, reflecting British colonial heritage and serving as an indication of membership in Jamaica’s privileged and educated upper social class who tend to have lighter colored skin.

However, even though they understand Standard English perfectly, the majority of Jamaicans speak another language – a local dialect called Pat’wa (spelt “Patois“) – used all over the island by economically and opportunity challenged Jamaicans, usually of darker skin.

The story of Jamaican Pat’wa is a story of social class, educational background, economic standing and skin color. Most speakers of Pat’wa are “less fortunate” in socioeconomic terms.

There is debate about making Jamaican Pat’wa a national language because of its widespread use, but that debate becomes emotionally charged by implied questions of which language is better, and by extension its users…

For a majority of Jamaicans, Pat’wa is what is spoken in the home and was the 1st language they learnt to speak as children.

As they grew up, during school hours they may learn and be required to use English – almost as a 2nd language, as between classes and after school they communicated, socialized and listened to music almost exclusively in Pat’wa.

Some schools in Jamaica now teach in both Standard English and Pat’wa, with results indicating that Jamaican children taught in this way are achieving better results than those taught only in Standard English.

By contrast, middle and upper Jamaican social classes speak Standard English both in and out of the home – both professionally and personally.

Patois is originally a French word meaning “rough speech” and usually carries a negative connotation.

Middle and upper class Jamaicans often consider Pat’wa a less “intelligent” version of English – viewing it as the ungrammatical babble of the uneducated.

As far as many middle and upper class Jamaicans are concerned, Pat’wa is only acceptable in informal settings and in use for entertainment – songs, theater, literature and for telling off-color jokes.

Many modern middle and upper class Jamaicans can naturally switch from Standard English to Pat’wa and back within a single conversation just depending on the topic or point being made.

Within privileged Jamaican social classes, Pat’wa is used almost exclusively by younger people in informal contexts for casual everyday conversations, while Standard English is reserved for school, church, family functions and professional engagements.

Jamaican Pat’wa is the reflection of the island’s history, a combination of borrowed words and various languages spoken by different island inhabitants in Jamaica’s history – and is a result of close interaction between cultures from completely different backgrounds.

Taino (Arawak) Indians, Spanish and British Colonialists – including influence from dialects like Scottish and Irish, Slaves from a multitude of African tribes, Indian and Chinese indentured servants, Middle Eastern traders and merchants, even contemporary Rasta, all contributed to what is today described as the Jamaican Pat’wa (Patois) Language.

In many ways, use of Pat’wa signals the user’s defiance of the “Man” – historically European cultural authority and currently middle and upper class Jamaicans with assumptions of intellectual superiority.

Jamaican Pat’wa is an informal language used for informal purposes, existing mostly in the spoken form – an intriguing part of our culture and a perfect fit for the colorful stories we love to tell!

Pat’wa is not a strict, rule-oriented language, but it has its own structure and guidelines. There is no written standard, no final authority, dictionary or governing body to consult, so your Pat’wa can never be right or wrong.

Jamaicans regularly make up new words, shorten other words and repeat some words twice. We take ‘H’s’ from words that need them and give them to others that don’t.

A simplified description of Pat’wa could be – English words spoken with West African grammatical structure, sound and syntax.

Pat’wa’s use of only the present tense is evidence of influence from Niger-Congo language systems which do not address the factor of time, having no past or future tense, i.e. I will swim later, Yesterday I swim, and, I am swim right now.

Pat’wa is an inseparable from the Jamaican experience and its use is often necessary to convey a speaker’s specific meaning, as the emotional essence changes when the same words are spoken or “translated” into Standard English – their meaning becoming distorted, diluted or corrupted.

In some cases, Standard English words can have a totally different meaning from their dictionary definition when used in certain Jamaican Pat’wa contexts.

Jamaican Pat’wa is very expressive, it allows you to say so much more with less, but if you don’t know the culture, Pat’wa won’t mean much of anything to you.

Some say that difficulty for outsiders to understand Pat’wa is intentional.

Jamaican Pat’wa developed around the 17th century when slaves captured from West and Central Africa were compelled to learn and speak English, after the slaves were kidnapped from their many different African countries and tribes.

In fact, Rastas claim their original African languages were stolen from them when English was forced on the oppressed slaves during captivity.

Slaves were often divided into groups without a common language – deliberately to prevent revolt – so the only means of communication was English, or at least broken English.

In order to survive and keep oral traditions from the African continent alive, the slaves were forced to blend their native languages with English.

Pat’wa soon developed into a way for Jamaican slaves to communicate with each other in front the British without being understood – sharing information with one group and keeping another at the same time!

The Rastafarian contribution has been to modify both Standard English and Jamaican Pat’wa into a third dialect known as “Iyaric“, as a way to seek redemption from the horrors of African slavery, and resist against what they see as the Babylon system.

Some popular examples of Rastafarian Iyaric word modifications are the use of “Overstanding” as opposed to “understanding“, to emphasize an enlightened mental position and “Forward”, used in place of the sexually connotated “come”.

Rastafarians deconstruct Standard English words and then mix pieces together to form new words called “up-full” sounds. For example the “ded” sound in the word “dedicate” is replaced with “liv” to form the up-full sound “livicate” – replacing “ded” because it sounded too much like “dead”.

New Rastafarian word modifications are being regularly introduced into mainstream Jamaican society and the Pat’wa language – mainly through popular Reggae songs and the vibrant Dancehall culture that reflect the island’s ever-changing cultural dynamic.

Pat’wa continues to change as it grows, a living testament to the interactions, conflicts and struggles of different Jamaican cultures and classes.

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