Yes, We’re Proud Of Our Patois!

Our creole is whole.

Foreword: I start the article with these sentences to indicate the beauty and power of Jamaican Creole/Patois (which I will refer to as just Patois, its common name, throughout the article, unless stated otherwise). It is often described by the uninitiated as “broken English”, “gibberish”, and, in the most pejorative cases, “baby-talk”, all of which are inaccurate and totally unfair labels for a language with such a deep history and structure. I am of Jamaican and St. Lucian heritage, and these countries both have creoles of their own. I chose to write about Jamaican Patois, because it is one of the most well-attested English-based creoles in the Caribbean, to which I have also had a lot of exposure; however, this has only been informally. In this article, I analyse some of the intricacies of the grammar, lexicon and stylistic tendencies of the language, which many people of the diaspora never would have read about before in any great detail. It is truly fantastic.


Emancipation Park statue in Kingston, Jamaica

Jamaican Patois, or Jamaican Creole (as it is referred to by linguistics), is a creole based on English, with significant West-African influences, particularly from the Akan language family of Ghana. The word creole comes from créole in French, coming from the Latin verb, creare, meaning “to create”, while patois comes from the Old French, patois, meaning “local/clumsy speech”, since the –ois suffix has pejorative connotations. Jamaican Patois is a relatively new language; accounts of its development only began in the late 17th century moving into the early 18th century, at a time when the number of Africans on the island began to outnumber the presence of European slave-owners greatly. By 1703, there were about 45,000 Africans in Jamaica; the seeds of the West-African influence in Jamaica were sown, and from them, Patois was born.

Contrary to popular belief, not all Patois on the island is the same; there is what is known as a creole continuum. There are three classifiers for different parts of this linguistic continuum, called the acrolect, mesolect, and basilect. The acrolect is the closest to the lexifier (English), and is commonly referred to as Jamaican Standard English. The basilect bears the least resemblance to Standard English, while the mesolect comprises the intermediate variations in speech. Jamaican Patois as we know it includes the mesolectal and basilectal varieties. A striking point of interest is the fact that, grammatically, the mesolect and basilect have both developed so much, that they, in technical, linguistic terms, can no longer be genetically linked to either English or any West African language, despite exhibiting obvious links and influences from them.

(To be a bit more precise, we take the following case: Standard English has been influenced by French, and we know this from the number of loanwords present in its lexicon. However, English is descended from Germanic languages, and French is a Romance language, so despite modern English bearing a French influence, it does not necessarily make the two genetically related.) Continue reading